I have a hard time remembering the books I have read without also remembering who I have read them with or where. Increasingly, since so much of my reading is done out loud to my children, it seems natural to me that all reading should be shared reading of one sort or another. Sifting through text messages, chats, emails, and the letters and envelopes scattered around my office, I have pieced together a calendar of the books I have read and the people who made them matter.
January, February: The Collected Stories of Diane Williams, “stories that show how the momentary convergence of yearning and surrender can make time hang still,” I shout first at Stephanie, then at the bartender serving us, before putting the thought in an essay on Williams; Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, Monkey Grip, and The Children’s Bach (“one of the best novels of the twentieth century,” Len writes to me after reading a draft of my essay on Garner)—novels built out of beautifully Brechtian tableaux. My calendar reminds me that most of February was spent at festivals and talks, reading on freezing trains. On a train to Harrogate: Dasa Drndić’s Doppelganger, which features an old lady giving an old man a hand job beat out to a Nazi alphabet primer. On a train to Cambridge: Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story, the best anatomization of how one person can colonize another’s thought after a break up. During a long weekend in New York: Drndić’s Belladonna, EEG, and Trieste for an essay about Drndić’s novels of unsuccessful self-annihilation. On a flight to Glasgow, Brigid Brophy’s Flesh, about an inexperienced, neurotic, young man seduced by a wry, charismatic, older woman.
March, April: Nightwood, The Sound and the Fury, Lolita, Giovanni’s Room, Housekeeping, Beloved, novels I re-read during the term with my students. (“Is modernism inherently depressing or do you just like depressing modernist novels?” one asks.); Siri Hustvedt’s fine and predictable Memories of the Future for a review. Obsessed with telescopes and other instruments of sight after scientists release the first image of a black hole, I read Margaret Cavendish’s mind-blowing The Blazing World and Poems and Fancies and Danielle Dutton’s enchanting novelization of Cavendish’s life, Margaret the First. I chase down some seventeenth century scholars, all of them named Katharine (why?), so I can learn how old telescopes work.
In mid-April, my friend Sarah comes to visit Oxford. A sense of civility and calm descends on my loud, disordered home. She airs out the cottage, opens a bottle of wine, roasts a chicken, and makes a salad, the likes of which my children have never seen before because I feed them only frozen peas, still frozen. We read together. The kids—The Jolly Postman, Each Peach Pear Plum, Julián Is a Mermaid, Tiny T-Rex and the Impossible Hug. She—Sally Rooney’s Normal People, interrupting her reading every ten minutes to groan at me. (I prefer Conversations with Friends.) Me—The Last Samurai, the pages of which have stiffened into little waves after I laughed so hard at DeWitt’s mad, philological genius that I dropped the book into the tub. To make Sarah happy again, I take her to Blackwell’s and make her buy her own copy of The Last Samurai, which has a nicer cover than mine because it’s the U.K. edition. She reads it in a single sitting the next day, draped over the couch in my office, and complains that Jonathan Safran Foer ripped off Helen DeWitt when he wrote Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. “Only his version was squishier,” she says.
At the very end of April, someone—I wish I could remember who, but I can’t—recommends Olive Moore’s Spleen, a forgotten modernist novel, painterly and queer, about the fearful eroticism of maternity. In Paris for work, I do an interview with British Vogue about “serious erotic fiction,” trying hard to convince the wide-eyed editor that Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons is full of practical sex tips. On the flight to Guernsey for a festival, I read the first half of my friend Rachel’s forthcoming book On Compromise: Essays on Art and Democracy, which is bracing and sensitive and funny.
May: a month consumed by gradually escalating illnesses. A sniffle, a cold, a sinus infection, bronchitis. I am bravely preparing to die of tuberculosis in a garret somewhere when I receive a copy of Guy de Maupassant’s Like Death from Nicholas at the New York Review of Books. How does he know nothing heals me like a novel about French aristocrats and artists behaving badly? Convalescing, I blow through Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head at the urging of Sarah, who is convinced that my life is always one punch in the face away from a Murdoch novel. The recommendation is seconded by our friend Gloria. “When I gave this book to my roommate when we were twenty-two, she said she felt like bread that just discovered butter,” Gloria writes. “I have never forgotten that.” On the train to Cardiff for a talk, I read Adam Sach’s debut novel The Organs of Sense, which is extremely funny on seventeenth-century telescopes, blind astronomers, and the temporary luminosity of love.
June: Fleur Jaeggy’s novella Sweet Days of Discipline (cold, gleaming), then to Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina (eddying, frantic), poolside at Cliveden House where I burn badly, convinced that the English sun is too puny to warrant sun screen; Fran Ross’s Oreo after swimming the Thames, flanked by unarousable cows; Leah Price’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Books, one of only three non-fiction books I will read this year and the inspiration for the bookish tattoo I get at the end of the month.
July: Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End, before a flight to Turkey to drop the kids off with my mother at her summer house on the coast. On the flight there, I read them the animal books they love: Just So Stories, Where the Wild Things Are, The Elephant and the Bad Baby. My last night at my mother’s, I stay up too late reading Kafka’s Letters to Milena, which I find on the shelf of the guest bedroom. I am mesmerized by how Frank—Milena calls him Frank; I will too—burdens this woman with his torment, yet how real and irreducible that torment seems. I am sad that Milena’s side of the correspondence has not survived. I like her voice as I encounter it in the appendix to the book, in a letter to Max Brod. It’s a voice that seeks reality and clarity and, glimpsing both, bends toward compassion. There’s an excellent description of how annoying it is to accompany Frank to the post office. I reread Lydia Davis’s short story “Kafka Cooks Dinner” in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis to hear the echoes of that voice, mined for its comic potential: “I am so filled with despair as the time grows near when she will come and I have not even begun to make a decision about what I will offer her. I am so afraid I will fall back on the Kartoffel Surprise, and it’s no surprise to her anymore. I mustn’t, I mustn’t.” On a flight to New York, I read over a dozen applications for the Whiting Non-Fiction Grant, though the one that I remember best, because it feels fated somehow, is a haunting new translation of Kafka’s diaries by Ross Benjamin.
August, back in the U.K., reunited with the kids: Claire Louise-Bennett’s Pond, because I have decided to include a chapter in this book I’m trying to finish writing on the short story and close reading; Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, because it’s “the new Ben Lerner” and because I used to be a high school debater. In the passenger seat on a drive to Cornwall, I pivot to read backwards to the kids—Ludwig Bemelman’s Madeleine, Ogden Nash’s Custard the Dragon, Julia Donaldson’s Tabby McTat, all of which I have memorized, so I can recite instead of reading—until I start to feel car sick. While they nap, I finish Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater and begin Nicholas Mosley’s Accident, recommended by Claire, who describes Mosely as a “bloodless D.H. Lawrence”—lots of shadowy evil, too little golden sex. On the ride home, I write a short, exorcising essay on Natalia Ginzburg’s The Dry Heart, a grim, anti-Romantic novella about a woman who murders her cheating husband. The week after in Paris, everyone gets a 24-hour stomach bug, only no one gets it in the same 24 hours. The trip becomes a relay race of illness. The kids are listless, filthy. I read them their favorites: Lost and Found, Up and Down, How to Catch a Star, Stuck, The Incredible Book Eating Boy, all by the magnificent children’s author and illustrator Oliver Jeffers. I read chapter 42 of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady on my phone about a dozen times because his sentences stave off nausea.
September: On a trip to Boston and New York: Deborah Levy’s calm, aphoristic The Cost of Living—Sarah’s copy, a re-read from last December; Fleur Jaeggy’s S.S. Proleterka. Three Lives, and I Am the Brother of XX and Rachel Ingalls’s Mrs. Caliban, all courtesy of Mieke who invites me to raid her bookshelf at New Directions; the proofs for The Ferrante Letters with Kat, Jill, and Sarah, which I read aloud to us around Sarah’s kitchen table because I always read proofs aloud, though it is slow and excruciating. At a conference in South Bend, Nan recommends Susan Choi’s My Education, about a graduate student who sleeps with her literature professor’s wife, a literature professor too but also—shocking and confusing to all involved—a young mother. I read it on the plane home, and find that, like most relationships, the novel is fun and full of possibility in the first half, turns stale and falls apart in the second.
October: Len, who is on a one-man crusade against what he calls the “New Piety” in literary criticism, convinces me to read Philip Roth’s The Professor of Desire. It starts out funny—Roth is trying hard to retool Chekhov’s short story “The Lady with the Dog” as a comic novel—but Roth makes compulsive sexual desire into such a sad, annihilating thing that my laughter runs out quickly. In an afternoon, I read Isabel Waidner’s propulsive We Are Made of Diamond Stuff, a Brexit novel that manages to write about the present without making the present feel dated; in a night, Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan’s Correspondence, which, though not as intense or agonized as Letters to Milena, still crackles with Celan’s despair and Bachmann’s self-possession. On a flight to Stockholm at the end of the month: Niklas Luhmann’s Love: A Sketch, for a talk I’m supposed to give preemptively titled “Critical Love Studies.” (What does this mean? I don’t know yet.)
November is frantic with reading to crowd out the holidays, which leave me bored and melancholy. There is Hermione Lee’s engrossing biography of Virginia Woolf and Volumes 2 and 3 of Woolf’s diaries for the new edition of Mrs. Dalloway I am annotating and introducing; John Berger’s sexy, phenomenologically attentive G., on Len’s recommendation, and Alison Light’s compassionate memoir about marriage and communism, A Radical Romance, on Pam’s; The Complete Gary Lutz for an essay on the un-erotics of art and sad literary men; all of Benjamin Chaud’s gorgeously illustrated Bear books to my children and the new Oliver Jeffers book The Fate of Fausto, a parable about an angry, possessive man for whom nothing in the world is enough. “What is enough?” my younger son asks. I do not know how to answer.
In mid-November, Diane Williams, who I have dinner and drinks with after a reading she gives in London, tells me to read John Cheever’s “The Season of Divorce.” I do, ending the year more or less where it started. Though by the time this piece goes up, I may finally finish Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport, which I have been reading at a disciplined snail’s pace of 20 pages a night for the past several months.
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It’s strange that the attacks on September 11 are referred to almost exclusively by their date, because it was an event so large that its aftermath sprawls well beyond the borders of conventional time. Maybe this is why we call it 9/11 and not 9/11/01, the former reminding us that trauma has a recurrent, cyclical nature.
Healing, however, can be a more linear process. In the 17 years since 9/11, our culture has worked through an index of ideas about terrorism, Islam, and any potential link between the two. We can see this, in part, by looking at the novels that seek to explore this link, two of which are Terrorist by John Updike, published in 2006, and The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan, published in 2016. While many post-9/11 novels tend to focus on the experience of victims or witnesses—such as Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close—Updike’s and Mahajan’s novels are, to some degree, exercises in understanding a terrorist’s motivations, particularly as a function of religion. However, for all their similarities in subject matter, a number of distinguishing factors—namely the decade that separates their publications, as well as the cultural viewpoints of their authors—allow them to demonstrate a specific evolution of thought regarding Islam and terrorism.
Terrorist was published in 2006, and the novel is steeped in the anxieties of the era in which it was written. The protagonist, Ahmad, an Egyptian-American high school senior living in an economically depressed part of New Jersey, is the novel’s titular terrorist. And though it isn’t until later in the book that he is introduced to the terror plot in which he will participate, from the very beginning he embodies the caricature of Islamic fundamentalists that emerged directly after 9/11—primarily that they hate us for our freedom and the way that freedom flaunts our godlessness. This is expressed in the novel’s opening lines:
Devils, Ahmad thinks. These devils seek to take away my God. All day long, at Central High School, girls sway and sneer and expose their soft bodies and alluring hair. Their bare bellies, adorned with shining navel studs and low-down purple tattoos, ask, What else is there to see?…The teachers, weak Christians and nonobservant Jews, make a show of teaching virtue and righteous self-restraint, but their shifty eyes and hollow voices betray their lack of belief…They lack true faith;…they are unclean.
The novel’s trajectory doesn’t need to take Ahmad far from where he starts. Already, his devotion to God and Islam results in his demonization of non-Muslims, and in psychosexual anger. In addition, Ahmad’s Islam functions to alienate him from the other characters in the novel, particularly his white mother, his Jewish guidance counselor, and a black Christian acquaintance from school named Joryleen. His father is absent in his life, so he is the only Egyptian Muslim in his small social circle, which makes his race and religion topics of interest to those around him. Ahmad’s religion, in fact, often seems to be the only thing his social circle is capable of talking about. And this focus seems warranted as Ahmad sees the world through the prism of an Islam that openly suggests violence. The novel is filled with exchanges similar to the one that takes place after Ahmad accepts an invitation to see Joryleen sing in her church choir. She thanks him for coming; he replies:
“You have been gracious to me, and I was curious. It is helpful, up to a point, to know the enemy.”
“Enemy? Whoa. You didn’t have no enemies there.”
“My teacher at the mosque says that all unbelievers are our enemies. The prophet said that eventually all unbelievers must be destroyed.”
This teacher, Ahmad’s imam, is one of the people who recruits him for the suicide bombing he later agrees to participate in, underscoring the fact that all of the novel’s Muslim characters are eventually part of the terror plot. This cleanly fulfills the assumptions the other characters make about Muslims: that they are not to be trusted, that they are enemies of America. They become what many bearded men of a certain race or religion became in the years after 9/11—representatives of the overlap between Islam and evil. Ahmad’s guidance counselor, Jack Levy, whose distrust of Islam primes him to save Ahmad from his ultimate suicide mission, meets the imam at Ahmad’s graduation. It doesn’t take long before Levy, knowing nothing about the man, associates his religion with violence:
Levy studies the imam—a slight, impeccable man embodying a belief system that not many years ago managed the deaths of, among others, hundreds of commuters from northern New Jersey…[H]is initial good will toward the imam dissolves: the man in his white garb sticks like a bone in the throat of the occasion.”
This is one of many times the connection between violence and Islam is articulated. Taken individually, one could argue that the book’s moments of prejudice—e.g. when Jack’s wife tells her sister “Think of what our parents would have said if we’d brought home Muslim men to marry,” or when the secretary of defense advises another character to get out of New Jersey because “It’s full of Arabs—Arab Americans, so-called.” —might aid a larger purpose. A racist character does not prove a novel racist. The problem of this novel, however, is not that characters say Islamaphobic things, but that the events of the novel only prove these characters right. Every Muslim in the book is a terrorist. Each one wants to see harm done to America. None are to be trusted. While American fear and distrust during the post-9/11 years accounted for an ongoing legacy of violence and death, in Terrorist, that fear and distrust are completely warranted and, perhaps, all that will save us.
Titles may not be the most useful part of a book on which to dwell, but they can serve as a starting point. In Updike’s novel, the title is a claim of decisiveness, a claim to understand the wounded American imagination from which the word terrorist gathers its power. Updike’s title speaks well to the novel’s heavy-handedness, telling readers the whole story, conjuring up a spectacle of violence and destruction. Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs, on the other hand, promises a narrative more subtle and complex, which does not rely on social and political caricatures.
The novel opens with a public bombing in a crowded market, and while the rest of the narrative focuses in large part on the victims of this bombing, the renderings of the bombers offer glimpses into the characters’ religious and political motivations. The bomb maker, Shockie, returns from the attack to his organization’s home base, and the room he shares with Malik, noting that:
Malik was praying on a mat…He was a religious person—religion, Shockie thought, that crutch of the weak.
Shockie and Malik are both Muslims. It is not Islam as ideology, however, that has led them down the path to violence, but their inclusion in an oppressed minority group. Islam as a religion separates the two men—Shockie, the motivated and dedicated killer disdains Malik’s devotion. And that religious devotion seems to be the root of Malik’s moments of compassion, for which he is often derided, such as when he suggests at a group meeting that,
We should write letters to the victims and [their] families […] After all, what these victims go through is similar to what we all have gone through as Kashmiris. Something bad happens to them, they expect the government to help them and instead the government ignores them. […]If you want a true Islamic revolution in this country—not just fighting selfishly for our small aims—then we need to win over these people, show our solidarity with them, tell them that our hands were tied, we were only trying to expose to them the callousness of the people they have chosen to elect.”
In Malik and Shockie, Mahajan braids together a number of motivations for these acts of violence. While Islam, like any other well-known identity, functions to group people together through shared experience, it does not send those people on the path to murder. As The Association of Small Bombs seems to suggest, the path that leads to the violence of terrorism, begins somewhere else.
In The Association of Small Bombs, violence is far less the bloody fulfillment of Islam’s tenets than it is a misguided attempt to counter Muslim oppression. But like Terrorist, The Association is also interested in the transformation from peaceful citizen to violent extremist. This transformation can be seen in Ayub, a leader of The NGO, a peaceful protest group dedicated to getting prime minister Modi to own up to his Islamophobic policies.
Ayub’s religion is tied to both his nonviolence and his tendency toward revolution. He often looks to the writings of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali for hope and inspiration. He and his girlfriend, Tara, pillars of The NGO, are united in their grand aims of bringing Modi to justice and encouraging peace between Hindus and Muslims. However, they are less united in their personal aims, and when Tara breaks up with him, it initiates a heartbreak that becomes disillusionment and then violence.
Ayub moves back to his family’s small village and lives on their farm. There, he considers the ineffectualness of nonviolence. He considers assassinating Modi. His thoughts turn rancorous, bitter, and cynical. At this point—just as he is beginning to fall from grace—Ayub is introduced to Shockie, thereby bridging the book’s opening act of terror with its concluding one.
Shockie questions Ayub’s motives for joining violent extremist group, Ayub thinks through a few potential reasons, then says:
I tried nonviolence…I wanted equality between Hindus and Muslims, brotherhood. I thought the majority could be persuaded with such action…Now I see it’s a world where everything operates by force…I had always thought you had to educate others about your pain, show them how to solve it. Now I realize you have to make them feel it.
Throughout Ayub’s journey to violence, he questions his own motives. More often than not, they are political and moral, an act of revenge for what India or the Western world has done not to the Muslim religion but to the Muslim people:
How many time had Tara and he contacted some absent journalist at a major newspaper, one of those people who nodded and took no notes and then shook his head and said, ‘But what’s the story?’ What’s the story? The story is that thousands of innocent Muslims are being killed in plain sight, that innocent Muslims are being harassed in America for a crime they didn’t commit, that innocent Iraqis going about their business now wake to hear American armored vehicles razing…with their sirens while gangs of disaffected young men in office clothes shoot back from the alleys, reloading their AK-47s.
But both the novel and Ayub are aware that murder is not simply the result of political disagreements. While Ayub’s anger over the injustices done to Muslims has significant bearing on his actions, he decides that for someone to do what terrorists do, a more primal anger must be part of the equation. This is seen when Ayub imagines the last moments of Mohammed Atta, who is believed to have helped organize the attacks on 9/11:
There was too much blood involved—blood tossed against the mile-high windows of the WTC like a libation—for the reasons to not be emotional and hotheaded, even if it took the hijackers a year of training to accomplish their goals. Killing others and then yourself is the most visceral experience possible. Atta must have felt himself full of sexual hate for the people piled high in the towers, bodies in a vertical morgue.
Though Ayub has many motivations for violence, the most primal emotional one seems to come into full focus in the moments just after the bomb he planted detonates:
Hundreds of people lay on the ground. From the shop came only silence. Ayub—thrown to the ground, rolling, sliding—thought: Tara will hear me now.
In these lines, Mahajan’s terrorist is allowed to preserve the shreds of his humanity, rather than become a cliché of extremist Islam. Religion makes Ayub a marginalized and oppressed minority within his community. But it is not the path to the dehumanization, extremism, and violence that marks Ayub’s fall from grace.
Like titles, it might be fruitless to dwell too long on endings. However, there is a fundamental difference evident in the conclusions of each novel.
In Terrorist, Ahmad is ready to drive a truck laden with explosives into the Lincoln Tunnel. He is stopped by his guidance counselor, saved by the slightest recognition of his own humanity. After the plot has been diffused, Ahmad drives the truck back to New Jersey, and in the novel’s final paragraphs observes the residents of Manhattan:
All around them…the great city crawls with people…all reduced by the towering structures around them to the size of insects, but scuttling, hurrying, intent in the milky morning sun upon some plan or scheme or hope they are hugging to themselves, their reason for living another day, each one of them impaled lives upon the pin of consciousness, fixed upon self-advancement and self-preservation. That, and only that.
These devils, Ahmad thinks, have taken away my God.
This paragraph, especially the last line, can be read as Ahmad having lost, with the foiled attack, what he sees as his meaning and purpose. Without his upcoming martyrdom, without the murder that would have brought him closer to god, he must now accept his mundane life. Perhaps his Islam was only a way to escape sad conditions, the pain of fatherlessness or alienation. However, the connection between Islam and violence is maintained throughout and articulated clearly at the end. The connection might be complicated by a number of personal and circumstantial factors. But that connection is one that many people in the United States took for granted in the years directly following 9/11. Updike’s book echoes the beat of the American pulse, one that was perhaps hammering too fast for thought, reason, and compassion, and too fast for us to consider the stark boundaries of good and evil that we drew around one another.
But if time can heal, then the privilege of time belongs to Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs. The book was also written by a writer of color who was raised in India and does not share Updike’s white, ethnocentric point of view, a writer who understands that Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism are not things inflicted upon the Western world, but delocalized symptoms of many complicated issues. Mahajan’s novel also illustrates the ripple effects of violence, and show us that there are few winners where terrorism is concerned. Each of the characters’ lives end in sadness, loneliness, or fear. For some, for Ayub, that end is death.
After detonating his bomb, he manages to escape and is taken in by Shockie’s gang. They abandon him on a deserted island. After desperate attempts to save himself, he gives up, and Mahajan notes that,
[H]e became very tired and despairing and he sat down by a crooked doorframe and wept. ‘I am sorry, God,’ he said finally, recalling his oldest companion—one he had forgotten. ‘Take me back.’
Before Ayub starves to death, it is the disconnection between violence and religion that Mahajan chooses to underscore. It’s a striking note to end on. If a novel is, to some degree, a product of its time, then this choice seems reflective of the progress toward understanding that has taken place over the past decade. It also offers a glimpse into what may be possible in the decades to follow.
Image credit: ActionVance.
Elliot Reed explores adolescent loneliness in his debut novel, A Key to Treehouse Living. “This condition of loneliness and isolation is largely universal, and it’s uncomfortable, so young people find lots of ways to cope with it. There are many ways of coping,” he said.
Reed’s debut follows the rural midwest adventures of William Tyce, a young character who equally enjoys the outdoors and reference books; it is William’s admiration for these books that gives his story its structure. William learns not only how to survive in a world that is largely absent of others but also how to really and truly live.
Reed and I spoke about loneliness, wisdom, imagination, and of course, A Key to Treehouse Living.
The Millions: I read A Guide to Treehouse Living as an ode from William Tyce, the young protagonist, to the rural midwest and—maybe even more so—to the outdoors in general. Among other things, William has a love for campfires, rafts, rivers, and his treehouse. Do you share this love of the natural world with your protagonist?
Elliot Reed: Yes. When people buy a book thinking it’s going to be about treehouses and find out it’s not really about treehouses, the hope is they will feel some consolation from there being a lot of nature in the book. If you haven’t floated down the Missouri River, I recommend it. Pick a cool day in the fall when there’s not too much flooding going on and beware of the silver carp. These large fish will jump right into your boat. If you want an even better experience, go float the Eleven Point River in the Ozarks. It’s called the Eleven Point because 11 springs pour into it. The water is deep, clear, and flows slowly between nice cliffs. Very few people around. You can still find hellbenders there. I know a fabulous canoe rental based out of Alton, Missouri, I’d be happy to point you to. Whether they provide snorkel gear, I don’t know.
TM: The glossary-style structure you implement in A Key to Treehouse Living is incredibly consuming. Why did you decide to write in this unique format?
ER: It was an accident. The first entry I wrote was “Bugling.” I don’t know why I wrote it, and I had no character in mind who would be writing it other than me. I liked writing about doing something I knew only a little bit about and making it sound authoritative. This goes back to my brief tenure as the head writer of the blog How to Start Your Own Handyman Business. I am not a handyman. Never have been. I thought what I wrote about bugling sounded funny, so I kept going.
TM: As the story progressed, did you find the structure difficult to maintain?
ER: Once I realized I was writing something that had volume, and something from a perspective that was not my perspective, I came to understand that I needed a big event. I looked out my window, and there was the Missouri River. The structure was easy to maintain, but I always knew it would feel like the story began flowing in an actual direction once the river was introduced.
TM: William is a kid who is wise beyond his years. Whether he’s talking about the importance of reference books in “Annotations,” giving information about the “Eskimo language” in “Athabascan,” or offering solutions to nightmares in “Betta Fish,” William knows a lot about, well, a lot of things. How much did you have to research to give William this kind of insight?
ER: I didn’t do any real research. I knew a little bit about the mounds because I was obsessed with the mounds for a while. I knew a little bit about hail-damage repair because I was briefly head writer for the microblog known as How to Start Your Own Mobile Dent Repair Business. I have never repaired a dent except for one time, and that had nothing to do with hail. I would, however, recommend you cite or quote William’s glossary in an academic research paper and then send me your paper. If I’d done research, I think this would be a very different book—I remember trying, once or twice, to consult an outside source, but the process felt untrue to William’s character.
TM: I want to ask about the loneliness William experiences. His mother is dead. His father abandoned him. His uncle isn’t really around. He doesn’t have very many human connections at all. In his own entry for “Luminescence,” he says this: “A person’s skin can also seem to glow, and you may want to be inside of it. Sometimes you may want to have another person’s skin surround you like the walls of a parachute house. Feelings can also be luminescent—physical sensations experienced in the darkness can glow with warm heat and then disappear all of a sudden as if obscured by a cloud.” Do you view his separation from people as being sad, or is it what empowers him?
ER: The Dalai Lama says we should be alone for 30 minutes of each day, right? When you follow William as he makes connections to a world in which he seems to be a foreigner, you should absolutely feel empowered. People screw him over or forget about him a lot, but he’d rather write about the ways he keeps moving forward.
TM: Do you think this sense of loneliness William experiences is rare in our world for young people, or is it largely universal?
ER: This condition of loneliness and isolation is largely universal, and it’s uncomfortable, so young people find lots of ways to cope with it. There are many ways of coping. William’s coping mechanism is he creates a glossary of terms that demystify his existence. If you’ve ever become immersed in a dictionary or a field guide to identifying things in nature, you may have been coping with that fundamental loneliness through the act of getting to know other things.
TM: My favorite section is “Making Things Up.” It’s beautiful, and I love how William states the importance of imagination. In his entry, William writes, “The Boy Scouts say you need food, water, and shelter to survive, but they forgot to say you also need to make lists, and you need an imagination. With an imagination, you’re never quite alone, even in a fort deep in the woods when nobody’s around.” As the creator of this character and this story, how important has imagination been in your life?
ER: I’m an only child. I had just one person I would describe as a friend my age before fifth grade. Like other children, I played computer games, so my imagination was outsourced that way. Myst is a good game: You’re alone on an island with a bunch of weird buildings, are given no instructions, and there seems to be no real problem. I lived in Prague for a few years when I was a teenager, and I didn’t speak Czech, so I had to use my imagination when trying to decipher what people were trying to say to me. I had to imagine what the signs said at the castles and churches we’d visit; then I’d see there was an English translation and for whatever reason suspect it had been mistranslated.
TM: I’m sure you’ll hear mentions of your novel alongside Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time due to, if nothing else, the voices of the young protagonists. Who are some of your favorite young literary characters?
ER: I’m ashamed to say I still haven’t read those books, but they’re in the top of the pile on my bedside table. The first book that comes to mind is a children’s book called Andrew Henry’s Meadow by Doris Burn, but that’s just a few pages long and is mostly beautiful drawings of runaway children building their town of forts in the wilderness. They have this town of forts and then a local dog finds them and gives up their location. I prefer Simons Manigault to Holden Caulfield, hands down, though I barely remember anything about Edisto. Then there’s Hushpuppy from the film Beasts of the Southern Wild. Hushpuppy is among the greatest heroes of all time. Scout, from Toni Cade Bambara’s fabulous short story “Gorilla, My Love,” has an unforgettable voice that must have rubbed off on William. Then there are the boys from the movie Stand by Me. I think they spend an afternoon smoking cigarettes and trading baseball cards in a treehouse in that movie. What could be better?
Over the last few years, I’ve developed a certain pattern for whenever Jonathan Safran Foer or his writing come up in conversation. First, I admit that I’ve read all of his books and liked them. Second, I provide the caveat that I was a teenager when read them and haven’t looked at them since. Third, I say that I still stand by Eating Animals and find it to be an interesting piece of literary journalism, but that, of course, I no longer have a high opinion of his fiction. Much of the literary community seems to feel the same way, if they were ever on his side in the first place.
Cursory research indicates that even at the beginning of his career he was a polarizing figure, winning awards and making end-of-the-years lists alongside middling reviews in The New Yorker and The New York Times. This time around, it seems a little more universal. Here I Am received negative reviews from The Boston Globe, The Atlantic, The New Republic, and many other prominent outlets. Is the book that much worse than his others? Or are we just different?
My first encounter with Foer’s work was in an English class my junior year of high school. After reading many of the canonical American works — Catcher in the Rye, Beloved, etc. — we closed out the year with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
The book is about a nine-year-old boy, Oskar Schell, whose father passed away in the September 11th terrorist attacks. I was around that age in 2001 and had similar youthful difficulty making sense of what happened. Unlike much of the other work that I had read in English classes up to that point, I felt like I really understood what it was trying to do. The novel was also built on a series of formal techniques that I had not seen before. He dispersed letters from grandparents throughout the narrative and used photographs in contexts that seemed unconventional. These elements created the illusion of complexity, which dazzled me at the time.
The summer after this class, I read Everything Is Illuminated. In it, a character named Jonathan Safran Foer sets out to Ukraine to learn about a woman who saved his grandfather’s life during the Holocaust. Just like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, it switches between two storylines, and just like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, it resonated with me deeply. I had never read anything else like it.
In the years since this, I have come to think about these novels as sentimental and emotionally manipulative works. It does not take a particularly good writer to make the story of Oskar Schell an emotionally resonant one. The same goes for the story of (the fictional) Jonathan Safran Foer in his first novel. Centering books around flashpoints of international trauma is a quick way to the heart of a reader, and there is something about the way he does it that does not feel earned.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, for example, uses 9/11 as a prop to make its narrative heavier and more believable. His father could have died any other way, and he still could have found the envelope with the word “Black” on the front, and he still could have gone on his adventure. Perhaps, outside the specter of international trauma, it would be unbelievable that all these strangers are willing to speak with this child, but it is unbelievable within the specter of international trauma, anyway. In fact, the collective trauma has nothing to do with why people are so open to him, because in the end the reader learns that it was his mother pulling strings for him the whole time that made it possible.
Similarly, Everything is Illuminated relies heavily on the fictionalized history of the real town of Trochenbord, an exclusively Jewish shtetl located in Poland before the Nazis and the Soviets invaded during World War II. Almost all of the residents were murdered before the Holocaust ended. But replacing the real history with an imagined one turns a town that experienced tragedy into a device that coerces sympathy from the reader. The book takes the name and weight but leaves the substance behind, repurposing real-world suffering into a gimmick.
Still, I couldn’t deny that I found his books deeply moving, and if art is deeply moving, is it possible that it failed? If the impact is there, does it matter whether the writer “earned it” or not? They were gimmicks and tricks and manipulative, yes, but does it matter that they work?
It has been six years since I read his fiction, and it has been 11 years since he has published any. I was curious to see how his writing has changed over the years, as my perception of his work also changed. To bridge the gap between perception and reality, I read his new book.
Here I Am is a much more straightforward family novel than his prior two. The three central conflicts are also basically familial: Jacob and Julia, middle-aged parents of three, are spiraling toward divorce. Sam, their eldest, is 13 but does not want to have his bar mitzvah. Isaac, the great-grandfather, is deciding whether he wants to kill himself or be moved to a nursing home. These three conflicts are done well, or at least well enough.
Foer’s dialogue is also strong, crackling with energy reminiscent of gatherings with my own Jewish family. He proves especially proficient in busy scenes with more than two speaking characters.
However, there are long stretches of time when nobody is speaking, and interiority is not his strong suit by any means. Julia’s inner life is constructed particularly poorly. The writing is overwrought and leans on lists of superficial opinions to create the illusion of character depth, and sometimes it borders on unreadable. When he is willing to allow actions to characterize her, they are bizarre and unbelievable. Once, she asks Jacob to stare at her vagina in order to bring her to orgasm, which works. Another time, she masturbates with a doorknob she got from a hardware store. These moments are predictably unconvincing. As if to prove that his sexual misunderstanding is not sexist, he also devotes an enormous amount of page space to men thinking about their penises and talking about them with other men. These also fail to appear believably on the page.
The major events of the book are similarly hard to believe. About 275 pages into the book, there is a major earthquake in the Middle East, causing devastation in Israel, Jordan, and other surrounding countries. This leads to a series of events that make sense if you squint and are maybe a little drunk, including a total and unconditional withdrawal of Israeli soldiers and citizens from occupied territories and the unification of Jordan and Saudi Arabia into Transarabia. All of this leads to pretty much every country in the region declaring war on Israel.
The point of this, of almost starting World War III, is not to highlight the instability in the Middle East or the danger citizens of the region face or to even add to the conversation about Israel and its relationship with those around it. Instead, the point of this is to highlight the dissonance involved in being an American Jew, and specifically being Jacob, an American Jew who feels like a feckless wimp because he is a feckless wimp and struggling to bear the weight of how “manlier” men see him.
And all of that is very bad. It feels wrong in the moment, and the more one thinks about it, the worse it gets. It is, in a lot of ways, exactly the issue I started to see in his work as I grew up a little and read a lot more. The tragedy that is supposed to give the book its power is a shortcut, a way of giving the book emotional muscle without doing any weightlifting.
Still, I can’t avoid the way I felt at the end. Once the utter bullshit of the “war” falls away, once we are back with the family, the ending works. It is sad, and it made me feel sad. In spite of Foer’s issues, in spite of the flaws wounding Here I Am, in spite of the fact that it’s at least 100 pages longer than it needs to be, when I closed the book for the last time, I was genuinely moved. It ends quietly with a scene that is inevitable, but no less excruciating for it.
Foer is the writer I thought he was. I have a hard time saying the book failed. Maybe Foer’s project is bad, or too sentimental. But if he was trying to get me to feel something, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t work.
We think it’s safe to say last year was a big year for the book world. In addition to new titles by Harper Lee, Jonathan Franzen, and Lauren Groff, we got novels by Ottessa Moshfegh, Claire Vaye Watkins, and our own Garth Risk Hallberg. At this early stage, it already seems evident this year will keep up the pace. There’s a new Elizabeth Strout book, for one, and a new Annie Proulx; new novels by Don DeLillo, Curtis Sittenfeld, Richard Russo and Yann Martel; and much-hyped debut novels by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney and Callan Wink. There’s also a new book by Alexander Chee, and a new translation of Nobel Prize-winner Herta Müller. The books previewed here are all fiction. Our nonfiction preview is available here.
While there’s no such thing as a list that has everything, we feel certain this preview — at 8,600 words and 93 titles — is the only 2016 book preview you’ll need. Scroll down to get started.
My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout: The latest novel from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Olive Kitteridge centers on a mother and daughter’s tumultuous relationship. In a starred review, Kirkus reports: “The eponymous narrator looks back to the mid-1980s, when she goes into the hospital for an appendix removal and succumbs to a mysterious fever that keeps her there for nine weeks. The possible threat to her life brings Lucy’s mother, from whom she has been estranged for years, to her bedside — but not the father whose World War II–related trauma is largely responsible for clever Lucy’s fleeing her impoverished family for college and life as a writer.” Publishers Weekly says this “masterly” novel’s central message “is that sometimes in order to express love, one has to forgive.” Let’s hope HBO makes this one into a mini-series as well. (Edan)
The Past by Tessa Hadley: Hadley was described by one critic as “literary fiction’s best kept secret,” and Hilary Mantel has said she is “one of those writers a reader trusts,” which, considering the source, is as resounding an endorsement as one can possibly imagine. The English novelist is the author of five novels and two short story collections; in The Past, her sixth novel, siblings reunite to sell their grandparents’ old house. Most likely unsurprising to anyone who’s reunited with family for this sort of thing, “under the idyllic surface, there are tensions.” (Elizabeth)
Good on Paper by Rachel Cantor: Following her time-traveling debut, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World (which is a member of The Millions Hall of Fame), Cantor’s second novel, Good on Paper, chronicles the story of academic and mother Shira Greene. After Shira abandons her PhD thesis on Dante Alighieri’s Vita Nuova, she takes an unfulfilling temp job. When Nobel Prize-winner Romei contacts her to translate his latest work based on Dante’s text, she couldn’t be more excited. But upon receiving his text, she fears “the work is not only untranslatable but designed to break her.” (Cara)
The Happy Marriage by Tahar Ben Jelloun: The latest novel by Morocco’s most acclaimed living writer focuses on the dissolution of a marriage between a renowned painter and his wife. Using two distinct points of view, Ben Jelloun lets each of his characters — man and wife — tell their side of the story. Set against the backdrop of Casablanca in the midst of an awakening women’s rights movement, The Happy Marriage explores not only the question of who’s right and who’s wrong, but also the very nature of modern matrimony. (Nick M.)
Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine by Diane Williams: Williams’s short stories operate according to the principles of Viktor Shklovsky’s ostranenie: making strange in order to reveal the ordinary anew. They are dense and dazzling oddities with an ear for patois and steeped deeply in the uncanny. Darkness and desire and despair and longing and schadenfreude and judgment roil just below the surface of seemingly pleasant exchanges, and, in their telling, subvert the reader’s expectations of just how a story unfolds. Williams’s previous collection Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty was a beauty. Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, her forthcoming, warns of linguistic breakdown, insistence, and restlessness. (Anne)
Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt: It’s been seven years since Samantha Hunt’s novel about Nicola Tesla, The Invention of Everything Else, was listed as an Orange Prize finalist. Now Hunt’s back with a modern gothic starring a scam-artist orphan who claims to talk to the dead; his sister who ages into a strange, silent woman; and, later, her pregnant niece, who follows her aunt on a trek across New York without exactly knowing why. Also featured: meteorites, a runaway nun, a noseless man, and a healthy dash of humor. Although it’s still too early to speculate on the prize-winning potential of Mr. Splitfoot, Hunt’s fantastical writing is already drawing favorable comparisons to Kelly Link and Aimee Bender, and her elegantly structured novel promises to be the year’s most unusual ghost story. (Kaulie)
The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela: Aboulela’s new novel transports readers to Scotland, the Caucasus, St. Petersburg, and Sudan. The protagonist is a Scottish-Sudanese lecturer researching “the lion of Dagestan,” a 19th-century leader who resisted Russian incursions, when she finds out that one of her students is his descendant. As they study up on the rebel leader, and the Georgian princess he captured as a bargaining chip, the two academics become embroiled in a cultural battle of their own. Aboulela’s fifth book sounds like a fascinating combination of Leo Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat and A.S. Byatt’s Possession. (Matt)
Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson: With its intense competition and rivalries, the ballet world provides a novelist with plenty of dramatic material. Girl Through Glass alternates between late-1970s New York, where its heroine works her way into George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, and the present day, where she is a dance professor having an affair with a student. Exploring the exquisite precision of dancing alongside the unruliness of passion, Wilson’s novel looks to be on point. (Matt)
Unspeakable Things by Kathleen Spivack: In her debut novel, Spivack, an accomplished poet, tells the story of a refugee family fleeing Europe during the final year of WWII. In New York City, where they’ve been laying low, we meet a cast of characters including a Hungarian countess, an Austrian civil servant, a German pediatrician, and an eight-year-old obsessed with her family’s past — especially some long-forgotten matters involving late night, secretive meetings with Grigori Rasputin. Described by turns as “wild, erotic” as well as “daring, haunting, dark, creepy, and surreal,” Unspeakable Things certainly seems to live up to its title. (Nick M.)
What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell: Greenwell’s debut novel expands his exquisitely written 2011 novella, Mitko. A meticulous stylist, Greenwell enlarges the story without losing its poetic tension. An American teacher of English in Bulgaria longs for Mitko, a hustler. Think the feel of James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. Greenwell’s lines tease and tear at the soul: “That my first encounter with Mitko B. ended in a betrayal, even a minor one, should have given me greater warning at the time, which should in turn have made my desire for him less, if not done away with it completely. But warning, in places like the bathrooms at the National Place of Culture, where we met, is like some element coterminous with the air, ubiquitous and inescapable, so that it becomes part of those who inhabit it, and thus part and parcel of the desire that draws us there.” (Nick R.)
On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes: This novel about the ills of Europe generally and Spain specifically appears in English mere months after the death of its author, one of Spain’s premier novelists. Readers unmoved by, say, the sour hypotheticals of Michel Houellebecq will find a more nuanced, if no less depressing, portrait of economic decline and societal breakdown in On the Edge, the first of Chirbes’s novels to be translated into English (by Margaret Jull Costa). (Lydia)
The Unfinished World by Amber Sparks: The second collection of short fiction by Sparks, The Unfinished World comprises 19 short (often very short) stories, surreal and fantastic numbers with titles like “The Lizzie Borden Jazz Babies” and “Janitor in Space.” Sparks’s first collection, May We Shed These Human Bodies, was The Atlantic Wire’s small press debut of 2012. (Lydia)
And Again by Jessica Chiarella: This debut by current UC Riverside MFA student Chiarella is a speculative literary novel about four terminally ill patients who are given new, cloned bodies that are genetically perfect and unmarred by the environmental dangers of modern life. According to the jacket copy, these four people — among them a congressman and a painter — are “restored, and unmade, by this medical miracle.” And Again is a January Indie Next Pick, and Laila Lalami calls it “a moving and beautifully crafted novel about the frailty of identity, the illusion of control, and the enduring power of love.” (Edan)
The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel: The fourth novel by Martel is touted as an allegory that asks questions about loss, faith, suffering, and love. Sweeping from the 1600s to the present through three intersecting stories, this novel will no doubt be combed for comparison to his blockbuster — nine million copies and still selling strong — Life of Pi. And Martel will, no doubt, carry the comparisons well: “Once I’m in my little studio…there’s nothing here but my current novel,” he told The Globe and Mail. “I’m neither aware of the success of Life of Pi nor the sometimes very negative reviews Beatrice and Virgil got. That’s all on the outside.” (Claire)
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee: We’ve been awaiting Chee’s sophomore novel, and here it finally is! A sweeping historical story — “a night at the opera you’ll wish never-ending,” says Helen Oyeyemi — and the kind I personally love best, with a fictional protagonist moving among real historical figures. Lilliet Berne is a diva of 19th-century Paris opera on the cusp of world fame, but at what cost? Queen of the Night traffics in secrets, betrayal, intrigue, glitz, and grit. And if you can judge a book by its cover, this one’s a real killer. (Sonya)
The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray: Whiting Award-winner Wray’s fourth novel, The Lost Time Accidents, moves backwards and forwards in time, and across the Atlantic, while following the fates of two Austrian brothers. Their lives are immersed in the rich history of early-20th-century salon culture (intermingling with the likes of Gustav Klimt and Ludwig Wittgenstein), but then they diverge as one aids Adolf Hitler and the other moves to the West Village and becomes a sci-fi writer. When the former wakes one morning to discover that he has been exiled from time, he scrambles to find a way back in. This mash-up of sci-fi, time-travel, and family epic is both madcap and ambitious: “literature as high wire act without the net,” as put by Marlon James. (Anne)
A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin: Canin is the New York Times bestselling author of The Palace Thief and America America and a faculty member at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Mathematical genius Milo Andret, subject of A Doubter’s Almanac, shares a home with Canin in northern Michigan. Milo travels to Berkeley, Princeton, Ohio, and back to the Midwest while studying and teaching mathematics. Later in the story, Hans, Milo’s son, reveals that he has been narrating his father’s mathematical triumphs and fall into addiction. Hans may be “scarred” by his father’s actions, but Canin finds a way to redeem him through love. (Cara)
Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma: Kirkus described this book as an ode to friendship, but it could just as easily be described as a meditation on mortality. Jansma’s second novel — his first was The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, published in 2014 — follows the intertwined lives and increasingly dark trajectories of a group of four young friends in New York City. (Emily)
Tender by Belinda McKeon: McKeon took her place among the prominent Irish novelists with her 2011 debut, Solace, which was voted Irish Book of the Year. Her second novel, Tender, follows the lifelong friendship of Catherine and James, who meet when they are both young in Dublin. At first she is a quiet college student and he the charismatic artist who brings her out of her shell, but McKeon follows their friendship through the years and their roles change, reverse, and become as complicated as they are dear. (Janet)
Wreck and Order by Hannah Tennant-Moore: Tennant-Moore’s debut novel, Wreck and Order, brings the audience into the life of Elsie, an intelligent young woman making self-destructive decisions. Economically privileged, she travels instead of attending college. Upon her return from Paris, she finds herself stuck in an abusive relationship and a job she hates — so she leaves the U.S. again, this time for Sri Lanka. A starred review from Publishers Weekly says, “Tennant-Moore is far too sophisticated and nuanced a writer to allow Elsie to be miraculously healed by the mysterious East.” Tennant-Moore leaves the audience with questions about how to find oneself and one’s purpose. (Cara)
Dog Run Moon by Callan Wink: A few short years ago, Wink was a fly-fishing guide in Montana. Today, he has nearly bagged the limit of early literary successes, reeling in an NEA grant, a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, and publications in The New Yorker, Granta, and the Best American Short Stories. “[T]hrough the transparency of his writing, at once delicate and brutally precise, the author gifts us with the wonderful feeling of knowing someone you’ve only met in a book,” Publishers Weekly says of Wink’s debut collection, which is mostly set in and around Yellowstone National Park. (Michael)
The Fugitives by Christopher Sorrentino: Ten years after Sorrentino’s much-lauded and National Book Award-nominated Trance, he returns with The Fugitives, called “something of a thriller, though more Richard Russo than Robert Ludlum,” by Kirkus. Within, struggling writer Sandy Mulligan leaves New York for a small, seemingly quiet Michigan town to escape scandal and finish his novel, and, well, does anything but. His name evokes Sorrentino’s father’s acclaimed novel Mulligan Stew, another tale of a struggling writer whose narrative falls apart. Mulligan’s novel suffers neglect as he befriends a swindler and becomes involved with an investigative reporter who’s there to uncover the crime; Sorrentino’s plot, in contrast, is fine-tuned. (Anne)
The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah: Gappah’s first book, a short story collection called An Elegy for Easterly, won the Guardian First Book Prize in 2009. The Book of Memory is her first novel, and if the first sentence of the description doesn’t hook you, I’m not sure what to tell you: “Memory is an albino woman languishing in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare, Zimbabwe, where she has been convicted of murder.” The novel follows this “uniquely slippery narrator” as she pieces together her crime and the life that led her there. (Elizabeth)
Youngblood by Matthew Gallagher: In his debut work of fiction, Gallagher, a former U.S. Army captain, focuses his attentions on Jack Porter, a newly-minted lieutenant grappling with the drawdown of forces in Iraq. Struggling with the task of maintaining a delicate peace amongst warlords and militias, as well as the aggressive pressures being applied by a new commanding officer, Jack finds himself embroiled in a conflict between the nation he serves and the one he’s supposedly been sent to help. Described as “truthful, urgent, grave and darkly funny” — as well as “a slap in the face to a culture that’s grown all too comfortable with the notion of endless war” — this novel comes more than 12 years after George W. Bush declared, “Mission Accomplished,” and nine months before we elect our next president. (Nick M.)
Black Deutschland by Darryl Pinckney: West Berlin in the years before the Wall came down — “that petri dish of romantic radicalism” — is the lush backdrop for Pinckney’s second novel, Black Deutschland. It’s the story of Jed Goodfinch, a young gay black man who flees his stifling hometown of Chicago for Berlin, hoping to recapture the magic decadence of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood’s Weimar era and, in the process, remake and discover himself. In Berlin, Jed is free to become “that person I so admired, the black American expatriate.” Kirkus praises the novel for embodying the “inventive, idiosyncratic styles” now flourishing in African-American writing. (Bill)
Cities I’ve Never Lived In by Sara Majka: The linked stories in Majka’s debut collection beg the question how much of ourselves we leave behind with each departure we make, as we become “citizens of the places where we cannot stay.” Kelly Link offers high praise: “A collection that leaves you longing — as one longs to return to much loved, much missed homes and communities and cities — for places that you, the reader, have never been. Prodigal with insight into why and how people love and leave, and love again.” You can read excerpts at Catapult and Longreads. (Bruna)
The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal: De Kerangal, a short-lister for the Prix Goncourt, has not been widely translated in English, although this may change after this novel — her first translation from an American publisher — simultaneously ruins and elevates everyone’s week/month/year. The Heart is a short and devastating account of a human heart (among other organs) as it makes its way from a dead person to a chronically ill person. It is part medical thriller, part reportage on the process of organ donation, part social study, part meditation on the unbearable pathos of life. (Lydia)
You Should Pity Us Instead by Amy Gustine: A debut collection of crisp short stories about people in various forms of extremis — people with kidnapped sons, babies who won’t stop crying, too many cats. The scenarios vary wildly in terms of their objective badness, but that’s how life is, and the writer treats them all with gravity. (Lydia)
The Lives of Elves by Muriel Barbery: Following the hoopla around her surprise bestseller The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Barbery, trained as a philosopher, became anxious about expectations for the next book. She traveled, and went back to teaching philosophy. She told The Independent that for a time she had lost the desire to write. Eight years on, we have The Lives of Elves, the story of two 12-year-old girls in Italy and France who each discover the world of elves. Barbery says the book is neither a fairytale nor a parable, strictly speaking, but that she is interested in “enchantment” — how the modern world is “cut off from” from its poetic illusions. (Sonya)
Square Wave by Mark de Silva: A dystopian debut set in America with a leitmotif of imperial power struggles in Sri Lanka in the 17th century. Part mystery, part sci-fi thriller, the novel reportedly deals with “the psychological effects of a militarized state upon its citizenry” — highly topical for Americans today. Readers of The New York Times may recognize de Silva’s name from the opinion section, where he was formerly a staffer. (Lydia)
The Arrangement by Ashley Warlick: Food writing fans may want to check out a novelization of the life of M.F.K. Fisher, focusing on, the title suggests, the more salacious personal details of the beloved food writer’s life. (Lydia)
Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue: At once erudite and phantasmagoric, this novel begins with a 16th-century tennis match between the painter Caravaggio and the poet Francisco de Quevedo and swirls lysergically outward to take in the whole history of European conquest. It won awards in Spain and in Enrigue’s native Mexico; now Natasha Wimmer gives us an English translation. (Garth)
The Daredevils by Gary Amdahl: Over the last decade, Amdahl has traced an eccentric orbit through the indie-press cosmos; his mixture of bleakness, comedy, and virtuosity recalls the Coen Brothers, or Stanley Elkin’s A Bad Man. The “Amdahl Library” project at Artistically Declined Press seems to be on hold for now, but perhaps this novel, about a young man riding the currents of radical politics and theater in the early-12th century, will bring him a wider audience. (Garth)
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi: Oyeyemi wrote her first novel, The Icarus Girl, at 18 and was later included on Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 2013. Following her fifth release, the critically-praised novel Boy, Snow, Bird, in 2014, Oyeyemi is publishing her first collection of short stories. The stories draw on similar fairy tale themes as her past works. In What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, Oyeyemi links her characters through literal and metaphorical keys — to a house, a heart, a secret. If you can’t wait to get your hands on the collection, one of the stories, “‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea,” was published in Ploughshares this summer. (Cara)
The Ancient Minstrel by Jim Harrison: With The Ancient Minstrel, our national treasure known as Jim Harrison returns to his greatest strength, the novella. Like Legends of the Fall, this new book is a trio of novellas that showcase Harrison’s seemingly limitless range. In the title piece, he has big fun at his own expense, spoofing an aging writer who wrestles with literary fame, his estranged wife, and an unplanned litter of piglets. In Eggs, a Montana woman attempting to have her first child reminisces about collecting eggs at her grandparents’ country home in England. And in The Case of the Howling Buddhas, retired detective Sunderson returns from earlier novels to investigate a bizarre cult. The book abounds with Harrison’s twin trademarks: wisdom and humor. (Bill)
The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder: As a fan of sports talk radio and its obsessive analysis, I’m looking forward to Bachelder’s novel, which endlessly dissects the brutal 1985 play where Lawrence Taylor sacked Washington’s quarterback Joe Theismann, breaking his leg. In the novel, 22 friends meet to reenact the play, an occasion that allows Bacheler to philosophize about memory and the inherent chaos of sports. As he put it in a New York Times essay: “I’m moved…by the chasm…between heady design and disappointing outcome, between idealistic grandeur and violent calamity.” (Matt)
The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota: Sahota’s second novel is the only title on the 2015 Man Booker Prize shortlist that has yet to be published in the United States. It tells the story of four Indians who emigrate to the north of England and find their lives twisted together in the process. Many critics cited its power as a political novel, particularly in a year when migration has dominated news cycles. But it works on multiple levels: The Guardian’s reviewer wrote, “This is a novel that takes on the largest questions and still shines in its smallest details.” (Elizabeth)
Burning Down the House by Jane Mendelsohn: The author of the 1990s bestseller I Was Amelia Earhart here focuses on a wealthy New York family beset by internal rivalries and an involvement, perhaps unwitting, in a dark underworld of international crime. Mendelsohn’s novel hopscotches the globe from Manhattan to London, Rome, Laos, and Turkey, trailing intrigue and ill-spent fortunes. (Michael)
Stork Mountain by Miroslav Penkov: In this first novel from Penkov (author of the story collection East of the West), a young Bulgarian immigrant returns to the borderlands of his home country in search of his grandfather. Molly Antopol calls it “a gorgeous and big-hearted novel that manages to be both a page-turning adventure story and a nuanced meditation on the meaning of home.” (Bruna)
Gone with the Mind by Mark Leyner: With novels like Et Tu, Babe and The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, Leyner was one of the postmodern darlings of the 1990s (or you may remember him sitting around the table with Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace for the legendary Charlie Rose segment). After spending almost the last decade on non-fiction and movie projects, he’s back with a new novel in which the fictional Mark Leyner reads from his autobiography at a reading set up by his mother at a New Jersey mall’s food court. Mark, his mother, and a few Panda Express employees share an evening that is absurd and profound — basically Leyneresque. (Janet)
Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta: “Maybe I’m a writer so I have an excuse to do research,” Spiotta said of what she enjoys about the writing process. And yet, for all of her research, she avoids the pitfalls of imagination harnessed by fact. In fact, Spiotta’s fourth and latest novel, Innocents and Others, is nearly filmic, channeling Jean-Luc Godard, according to Rachel Kushner, and “like classic JLG is brilliant, and erotic, and pop.” Turn to The New Yorker excerpt to see for yourself: witness Jelly, a loner who uses the phone as a tool for calculated seduction, and in doing so seduces the reader, too. (Anne)
Prodigals by Greg Jackson: Jackson’s collection opens with a story originally published in The New Yorker, ”Wagner in the Desert,” a crackling tale of debauchery set in Palm Springs. In it, a group of highly-educated, creative, and successful friends seek to “baptize [their] minds in an enforced nullity.” They also repeatedly attempt to go on a hike. The wonderfully titled “Serve-and-Volley, Near Vichy,” in which a former tennis star enlists his houseguest in a bizarre project, and the eerily beautiful “Tanner’s Sisters” are two particularly memorable stories in this sharp and often haunting debut. (Matt)
Shelter by Jung Yun: Yun’s debut novel concerns Kyung Cho: a husband, father, and college professor in financial trouble who can no longer afford his home. When his own parents — whom he barely tolerates because they’ve never shown him warmth and affection — are faced with violence and must move in with him, Cho can no longer hide his anger and resentment toward them. The jacket copy compares the book to Affliction and House of Sand and Fog, and James Scott, author of The Kept, calls it “an urgent novel.” Yun’s work has previously been published in Tin House. (Edan)
99 Poems: New and Selected by Dana Gioia: A gifted poet of rhythm and reason, Gioia’s civic and critical pedigree is impressive. A previous chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Gioia was recently named California’s Poet Laureate. In recent years Gioia’s critical writing has taken precedence — his 2013 essay “The Catholic Writer Today” is already a classic in its genre – but this new and selected collection marks his return to verse. Graywolf is Gioia’s longtime publisher, so look for emblematic works like “Becoming a Redwood” next to new poems like “Hot Summer Night:” “Let’s live in the flesh and not on a screen. / Let’s dress like people who want to be seen.” (Nick R.)
Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton: “I had rather be a meteor, singly, alone,” writes Margaret Cavendish, the titular character in Dutton’s novel Margaret the First. Cavendish is “a shy but audacious” woman of letters, whose writing and ambitions were ahead of her time. The taut prose and supple backdrop of courtly life are irresistible. (Witness: quail in broth and oysters; bowls stuffed with winter roses, petals tissue-thin; strange instruments set beside snuffboxes.) Dutton is something of a meteor herself, as founder of the Dorothy Project and with two wondrous books already under her belt, including the Believer Book Award-nominated novel Sprawl. (Anne)
The North Water by Ian McGuire: A raw and compulsively readable swashbuckler about the whaling business, with violence and intrigue in dirty port towns and on the high seas. There are many disturbing interactions between people and people, and people and animals — think The Revenant for the Arctic Circle. This is McGuire’s second novel; he is also the author of the “refreshingly low-minded campus novel” Incredible Bodies. (Lydia)
Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett: A young middle-class Nigerian man wakes up in his bed one morning to find that he has become white in the night. As a consequence, he loses his family but gains all manner of undeserved and unsolicited privileges, from management positions at various enterprises to the favors of beautiful women from the upper crust of Lagos society. His dizzying tragicomic odyssey paints a vivid portrait of the social and economic complexities of a modern megacity. (Lydia)
The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney: D’Aprix Sweeney’s debut novel The Nest will hit shelves in March trailing seductive pre-hype: we learned last December that the book was sold to Ecco for seven figures, and that it’s the story of a wealthy, “spectacularly dysfunctional” family — which for me brings to mind John Cheever, or maybe even the TV series Bloodlines, in which one of the siblings is a particular mess and the others have to deal with him. But The Nest has been described as “warm,” “funny,” and “tender,” so perhaps the novel is more an antidote to the darkness in family dysfunction we’ve known and loved — fucked-up families with hearts of gold? (Sonya)
What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera: A novel about a mother and daughter who leave Sri Lanka after a domestic disturbance and struggle to find happiness in the United States. Munaweera won the Regional Commonwealth Book Prize for Asia for her first novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors. (Lydia)
The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan: A novelist examines the enduring fallout of a “small” terrorist attack in a Delhi marketplace, and the way that families, politics, and pain weave together. Mahajan’s first novel, Family Planning, was a finalist for the Dylan Thomas prize. (Lydia)
Hold Still by Lynn Steger Strong: An emotionally suspenseful debut about the relationship between a mother and her troubled young daughter, who commits an unfixable indiscretion that implicates them both. (Lydia)
Dodge Rose by Jack Cox: This young Australian has evidently made a close study of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett (and maybe of Henry Green) — and sets out in his first novel to recover and extend their enchantments. A small plot of plot — two cousins, newly introduced, attempt to settle the estate of an aunt — becomes the launch pad for all manner of prose pyrotechnics. (Garth)
High Dive by Jonathan Lee: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher could have been the title of Lee’s first novel, had Hilary Mantel not taken it for her 2014 short story collection. The similarities end with the subject matter, though. Where Mantel opted for a tight focus, Lee’s novel uses a real-life attempt to blow up Mrs. Thatcher as an opportunity to examine other, less public lives. (Garth)
My Struggle: Book Five by Karl Ove Knausgaard: Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett, the fifth installment of this six-volume autobiographical novel covers Knausgaard’s early adulthood. The book is about a love affair, alcoholism, death, and the author’s struggle to write. James Wood describes Knausgaard’s prose as “intense and vital […] Knausgaard is utterly honest, unafraid to voice universal anxieties.” (Bruna)
Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld: In Sittenfeld’s modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, Liz is a New York City magazine writer and Darcy is a Cincinnati neurosurgeon. Although the update is certainly on trend with themes of CrossFit and reality TV, Sittenfeld is an obvious choice to recreate Jane Austen’s comedy of manners. From her boarding school debut, Prep, to the much-lauded American Wife, a thinly veiled imagination of Laura Bush, Sittenfeld is a master at dissecting social norms to reveal the truths of human nature underneath. (Tess)
Alice & Oliver by Charles Bock: The author’s wife, Diana Colbert, died of leukemia in 2011 when their daughter was only three years old. Inspired in part by this personal tragedy, this second novel by the author of 2008’s Beautiful Children traces a day in the life of a young New York couple with a new baby after the wife is diagnosed with cancer. “I can’t remember the last time I stayed up all night to finish a book,” enthuses novelist Ayelet Waldman. “This novel laid me waste.” (Michael)
Our Young Man by Edmund White: White’s 13th novel sees a young Frenchman, Guy, leave home for New York City, where he begins a modeling career that catapults him to the heights of the fashion world. His looks, which lend him enduring popularity amongst his gay cohort on Fire Island, stay youthful for decades, allowing him to keep modeling until he’s 35. As the novel takes place in the ’70s and ’80s, it touches on the cataclysm of the AIDS crisis. (Thom)
Now and Again by Charlotte Rogan: After harboring a secret writing habit for years, Rogan burst onto the bestseller list with her debut novel, The Lifeboat, which was praised for its portrayal of a complex heroine who, according to The New York Times, is “astute, conniving, comic and affecting.” Rogan’s second novel, Now and Again, stars an equally intricate secretary who finds proof of a high-level cover-up at the munitions plant where she works. It is both a topical look at whistleblowers and a critique of the Iraq War military-industrial complex. Teddy Wayne calls it “the novel we deserve for the war we didn’t.” (Claire)
Hystopia by David Means: After four published books, a rap sheet of prizes, and six short stories in The New Yorker, Means is coming out with his debut novel this spring. Hystopia is both the name of the book and a book-within-the-book, and it revolves around Eugene Allen, a Vietnam vet who comes up with an alternate history. In Allen’s bizarre, heady what-if, John F. Kennedy survives the ’60s, at the end of which he creates an agency called the Psych Corps that uses drugs to wipe traumas from people’s brains. (Thom)
Ear to the Ground by David L. Ulin and Paul Kolsby: In this “rollicking” tale about 1990s L.A., seismologist Charlie Richter, grandson of the man who invented the Richter scale, heads to the City of Angels to work at the Center of Earthquake Science to prove his methods for predicting quakes. The book, co-written by an essayist and critic (Ulin) and a screenwriter and movie producer (Kolsby), comes with an introduction by Karolina Waclawiak, author of The Invaders, and was previously serialized in the L.A. Reader. The novel will be published by the small but mighty Unnamed Press, an L.A.-based publishing house with a roster of quirky and formally daring books. (Edan)
Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings by Stephen O’Connor: A fictional account of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings told in conversations, fragments, and dreams. An excerpt is available at Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading — the site’s editor called it “experimental, metaphysical, deeply unsettling, and important.” (Lydia)
Bardo or Not Bardo by Antoine Volodine: In his publisher’s synopsis, the French writer Volodine’s multi-novel project sounds appealingly nuts: “Most of his works take place in a post-apocalyptic world where members of the ‘post-exoticism’ writing movement have all been arrested as subversive elements.” A recent critical essay in The New Inquiry furthers the sense of a cult in the making. Bardo or Not Bardo, a comedy the characters of which keep bungling attempts at reincarnation, may be a good place to begin the indoctrination. (Garth)
Letters to Kevin by Stephen Dixon: In 2015, it’s remarkably easy to make a phone call, so the latest novel by Stephen Dixon comes off as a Beckettian farce. The plot is absurd: in it, a man named Rudy sets out to call his friend Kevin Wafer, a teenager-going-on-college-student who lives across the country in Palo Alto. Rudy doesn’t have a phone, but when he tries to use a phone booth, a crane picks it up and deposits it (and Rudy) in a warehouse. Eventually, he gives up and opts to write a letter instead. Throughout, Dixon’s black-and-white drawings lend depth to his nightmare of inconvenience. (Thom)
The Bricks That Built the Houses by Kate Tempest: Barely 30, Tempest has won awards for her poetry, performances, and recordings. Her long narrative poem “Brand New Ancients” found the through-line from Homer to Jay-Z. Now she turns to prose, in a novel about scrabbling young Londoners trying to outrun the past. (Garth)
Zero K by Don DeLillo: When Jennifer Egan introduced DeLillo for his reception of the National Book Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, she noted “There will be no better way to understand life in the late-20th and early-21st century than reading the books of Don DeLillo.” Paranoia does not always lead to prescience, but DeLillo’s anxious eye toward the future has always been tempered by his identity as the son of immigrants and the Catholic spectacle of his youth. Zero K begins big: “Everybody wants to own the end of the world,” says billionaire Ross Lockhart to his son Jeff, the novel’s narrator. Jeff notes “We were sharing a rare point in time, contemplative, and the moment was made complete by his vintage sunglasses, bringing the night indoors.” No one is better than DeLillo at vaulting between registers of comedy and tragedy, between the consequence of eternity and the power of a single moment. (Nick R.)
LaRose by Louise Erdrich: On a summer day in North Dakota, 1999, a man named Landreaux stalks a deer along his property line. He shoots and misses, but he’s hit something else: his neighbor’s five-year-old son, Dusty. Landreaux’s close with his neighbors, in part because he has a five-year-old son of his own, LaRose, and the boys were inseparable. Erdrich’s 15th novel explores the complicated aftermath of the death, as Landreaux and his wife decide to give LaRose to their grieving neighbors as retribution. (Emily)
The Fox Was Ever the Hunter by Herta Müller: As if living in a totalitarian regime wasn’t bad enough, the four friends in Müller’s novel must contend with the fact that one of them is spying on the group for the secret police. Capturing the fear and moral corruption of the final days of Romania’s Ceausescu regime — and inevitably drawing on her own persecution by the secret police — Müller won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2009 for her work. Now, her long-time translator Philip Boehm brings the classic to English readers. (Tess)
The Pier Falls by Mark Haddon: Haddon is nothing if not versatile. You know him for his international bestseller, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but did you know Haddon is also an illustrator, screenwriter, poet, winner of two BAFTAs, and has written 15 books for children? It might not come as a surprise that his new book is a departure: a collection of short stories. An expedition to Mars goes wrong, a seaside pier collapses, a woman is marooned on an island, two boys find a gun in a shoebox. The stories are billed as “searingly imaginative and emotionally taut.” (Claire)
Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet: In her 10th novel, Millet delves into the territory of the psychological thriller: a young mother, Anna, takes her six-year-old daughter, Lena, and flees her estranged husband, Ned, who’s running for office in Alaska. Anna and Lena go into hiding in a derelict hotel in Maine, which quickly begins to fill up with other guests; guests who, as the novel progresses, begin to seem less and less like ordinary tourists, even as Ned begins to seem more and more sociopathic. (Emily)
Modern Lovers by Emma Straub: What happens when you age out of your cool? It’s a topic that filmmaker Noah Baumbach has explored, and Straub is his literary counterpart. Her third novel follows three Brooklyn Gen X friends and former bandmates nearing 50 and handing off the baton of hipness to their children, stifled ambition and sexual frustration included. With the multigenerational structure, it would be easy to compare Straub to other masters of the genre like Meg Wolitzer or Jennifer Egan, but she’s already a master in her own right after The Vacationers, so Modern Lovers should prove to be a witty romp. (Tess)
The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes: Barnes’s new novel — his first since 2011’s Man Booker Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending — concerns the life of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Barnes considers his character not just on a human level, as a young man fearing for his life and the safety of his family under Joseph Stalin, but also as a lens through which to examine the fall of the Soviet Union and the role of the artist in society. (Emily)
Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo: There are two kinds of Russo aficionados — those who came to him through his hilarious 1997 academic satire Straight Man and those who started with his wry, brooding 1993 breakthrough Nobody’s Fool. The latter strain of Russophile will rejoice that Russo has brought back Donald “Sully” Sullivan, the irascible hero of Nobody’s Fool, who was played by Paul Newman in the movie version. Two decades on, Sully has learned from his doctor that he has at most a year or two to live, and spends the novel striving to keep the news from everybody he loves. (Michael)
The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan: You had to know the person who’s spent more than a decade working at thoroughbred racetracks would choose to blurb the horse racing novel. Morgan, who was named one of The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 in 2010, has set both of her novels in her native Kentucky; this one centers on a powerful family aiming to breed the next racing great, and a young black man who comes to work for them and brings their prejudices into full view. It is described as “an unflinching portrait of lives cast in shadow by the enduring legacy of slavery.” (Elizabeth)
The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin: Cronin brings his mammoth, vampire apocalypse horror trilogy to a close this spring with The City of Mirrors. The Twelve (godfather vampires) have been defeated, and their descendants with them, and the human colonists start to retake the world, no longer confined to their fortresses and hiding places. But are they really safe? (They’re not.) Zero — the vampire who created The Twelve — survives, and he’s mad as hell. The conclusion of this suspenseful, surprising, frequently heartwarming, more often creepy-as-shit series promises to go out with a bang. (Janet)
The Fat Artist and Other Stories by Benjamin Hale: Hale’s simian debut novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, was widely praised; it takes talent to craft the believable voice of a chimpanzee who has “finally decided to give this undeserving and spiritually diseased world the generous gift of my memoirs.” Hale recently co-edited an issue of Conjunctions titled “A Menagerie,” that collects bestial tales. The short story form allows Hale’s own penchant for invention to further shine. One story, “The Minus World,” investigates shadow, “unfinished or rejected levels that the programmers left floating around” in Super Mario Bros: “It’s as if Mario had traveled to the distant, frayed edges of space and time. He must look into the void. It’s a little frightening.” The Fat Artist, which includes stories about dominatrices and performance artists, is sure to please. (Nick R.)
Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett: In his third book and second novel, Imagine Me Gone, Haslett returns to the territory of mental illness — the subject of many of the stories in his award-winning debut collection You Are Not a Stranger Here. Margaret marries John, after learning of his serious struggle with depression, and later their eldest son, Michael, battles with despair as well. From Joy Williams: “[O]ne of the most harrowing and sustained descriptions of a mind in obsessive turmoil and disrepair that I’ve ever read.” Peter Carey, on the other hand, speaks to the hopeful elements of the novel — “both dreadfully sad and hilariously funny all at once. It is luminous with love.” (Sonya)
Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens: In her two previous novels, Erens has quietly built a reputation as a sharp stylist with a gift for bringing quirky outsiders alive on the page. In Eleven Hours, a very pregnant young woman arrives alone at the maternity ward wanting to give birth without a fetal heart monitor, IV tubes, or epidural anesthesia. The novel follows her 11-hour labor in the care of a Haitian nurse who is herself pregnant. “Erens evokes the layered experience of living in a body — its tides of memory, sensation, and emotion — like no other writer I know,” writes novelist Karen Russell. (Michael)
Allegheny Front by Matthew Neill Null: A collection of short stories set in the author’s native West Virginia, where people and landscapes and animals reap the wages of resource extraction. Null’s first novel, Honey from the Lion, was a historical novel about West Virginia’s timber industry. (Lydia)
Barkskins by Annie Proulx: The award-winning author of The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain returns with a new novel in June — 10 years in the making — about wilderness, the rampant destruction of forests, and greed. At over 800 pages, this ambitious novel spans over three centuries and travels from France to China to New England. (Bruna)
Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler: If anyone was going to update The Taming of the Shrew, it should be the Pulitzer-winning Tyler, who is a keen observer of the nuances of the American family. In her take on the classic Shakespearean comedy, Kate is managing her odd scientist father’s household when his assistant might be deported, and the men scheme to keep him in the country with Kate’s help. Even though we think we already know the ending, the independent and contemporary Kate might have a surprise up her sleeve. (Tess)
They May Not Mean To, But They Do by Cathleen Schine: Her new novel, They May Not Mean To, But They Do, will solidify Schine’s reputation as “the Jane Austen of the 21st century.” When her husband dies, Joy Bergman finds that her children, Molly and Daniel, have an arsenal of weapons to fend off the woes of widowhood. But Joy is not about to take advice or antidepressants from anyone. When an ardent suitor from Joy’s college days reappears, Molly and Daniel must cope with their widowed mother becoming as willful and rebellious as their own kids. They May Not Mean To, But They Do is a compassionate look at three generations, all coming of age together. (Bill)
The Girls by Emma Cline: This debut follows two young women into the world of a Manson-ish cult in the 1960s. Cline won the 2014 Plimpton Prize from the Paris Review, which also published her essay about how she came to this material. (Garth)
Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty by Ramona Ausubel: Ausubel’s first novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us, won the PEN Center USA Fiction Award and the VCU Cabell First Novel Award. The New York Times Book Review wrote that her story collection, A Guide to Being Born, “finds a way to record the tensions between the corporeal and the invisible” — that’s an excellent way to read all her mischievous, magical work, actually. Ausubel’s second novel is about a moneyed family on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1970s — except this moneyed family is out of dough. The terror of being broke spins parents Fern and Edgar off on separate, strange journeys; meanwhile, their three kids are left to fend for themselves “in an improvised Neverland helmed by the tender, witty, and resourceful Cricket, age nine.” Maggie Shipstead calls it a “brilliantly imagined novel about family and fortune and the hidden knots between.” (Edan)
Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam: In Alam’s debut novel, Rich and Pretty, Sarah is the rich one and Lauren is the pretty one. They first met 20 years ago at a tony private school in Manhattan and became inseparable through high school, college, first jobs, and first loves. But now, all grown up and living very different New York lives, they have to navigate the tricky ways that the closest of friendships evolve, erode, and endure. Emma Straub, author of The Vacationers, says Alam, a Year in Reading alum at The Millions, has crafted a debut that’s “smart, sharp and beautifully made.” (Bill)
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: Gyasi’s debut distills hundreds of years of of history into 300 pages, tracing the lives and legacies of two Ghanaian half-sisters, one of them sold into slavery, one of them comparatively free. (Garth)
July and Beyond:
Home Field by Hannah Gersen: Our own Hannah Gersen’s debut novel is the story of Dean, a high school football coach in small town Maryland — and therefore a pillar of his community — whose life comes untethered after his wife’s suicide. Left to raise three children dealing with their mother’s death — a daughter at Swarthmore, an 11-year-old son acting out, and an eight-year-old son who barely understands it all — not to mention keep winning football games, Dean has to take stock of the life he thought he had, and how to move forward. (Janet)
Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer: FSG editor Eric Chinski knows Foer’s new novel — his first since Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) — better than anyone (other than Foer himself of course). Chinski says of Here I Am, “It’s got this high-wire inventiveness and intensity of imagination in it, and the sheer energy that we associate with Jonathan’s writing, but it’s a big step forward for him. It’s got a kind of toughness; it’s dirty, it’s kind of funny, like Portnoy’s Complaint, it exposes American Jewish life.” It’s not, Chinski says, autobiographical in any strict sense, but does borrow from Foer’s life — the story of a Jewish family, divorce, and three sons, in Washington D.C. (Sonya)
How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball: In his new novel, Ball follows the trajectory of a brilliant teenager living an impoverished and increasingly precarious life in the absence of her parents. Her father is dead, her mother institutionalized, and when she discovers that there’s an arson club at her school, she finds herself rapidly running out of reasons not to set the world on fire. (Emily)
I Am No One by Patrick Flanery: How far does reasonable suspicion live from outright paranoia? Are they close neighbors; do they overlap? These are questions for Jeremy O’Keefe, a professor who has just returned to New York City after 10 years abroad, and suddenly finds himself the object of obsession for a pale young man from his past — or is he? (Nick M.)
Listen to Me by Hannah Pittard: Winner of the Amanda Davis Award from McSweeney’s and author of the novels Reunion and The Fates Will Find Their Way, Pittard now brings us the story of a young married couple, Mark and Maggie, on a road trip gone wrong. Maggie’s recently been robbed at gun point, and by the time they stop for the night at an out-of-the-way inn (without power), the two aren’t even speaking to one another. Frederick Barthelme calls it “a positively Hitchcockian misadventure” and the jacket copy dubs it a “modern Gothic.” (Edan)
Monterey Bay by Lindsay Hatton: Hatton (my quondam classmate) blends historical fact — the life of John Steinbeck circa Cannery Row — with the story of a young woman discovering the complexities of adult life. In the process, the novel illuminates the founding of the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. Celeste Ng, in her blurb, compares Monterey Bay, Euphoria, and The Signature of All Things. (Garth)
Losing It by Emma Rathbone: In her debut, The Patterns of Paper Monsters, Rathbone proved herself a wry observer of coming of age in difficult circumstances. Her second novel follows this theme, as protagonist Julia Greenfield visits her spinster aunt during a hot North Carolina summer to conquer her greatest insecurity: why she’s still a virgin at 26. Except her aunt is one as well at 58. What follows is a candid yet funny take on just what desire and love mean. (Tess)
Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías: Marías returns with another masterful tapestry of noir-ish twists and digressive cerebration. A young man goes to work for a famous film director, and then finds himself entangled with the mysteries of the director’s wife. This one will be published in the U.S. in the fall. (Garth)
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It looks like Jonathan Safran Foer will be publishing his first novel in eleven years next fall. The book, tentatively titled Here I Am, is the story of an American Jewish family, set against a background of traumatic events in the Middle East including earthquakes and an invasion of Israel. Foer’s last novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, enjoyed tremendous critical and commercial success. Here’s a piece on JSF’s crazy, confusing, die-cut book Tree of Codes.
Actually, I am sitting here in my pants, looking at a blank screen, finding nothing funny, scared out of my mind like everybody else, smoking a family-sized pouch of Golden Virginia.
–Zadie Smith, “This is how it feels to me,” in The Guardian, October 13, 2001.
If you want to read the Greatest Work of 9/11 Literature, the consensus is: keep waiting. It will be a long time before someone writes it.
We don’t know what it will look like. It could be the Moby Dick of the Twenty-First Century, or maybe a new Gatsby, but more likely it will be neither. Maybe it won’t be a novel at all. It could be a sweeping history (maybe) of New York at the turn of the Millennium and of America on the precipice of total economic implosion (or not). We will read it on our iPad34 (or maybe by then Amazon will beam narratives directly into our brain for $1.99). One thing that seems certain is that no one has yet written that book. Not DeLillo (too sterile), Safran Foer (too cloying), Hamid (too severe), Messud (too prissy), O’Neill (too realist), Spiegelman (too panicked), Eisenberg (too cryptic) or the 9/11 Commission (too thorough).
The idea is that it will take time to determine what — if any — single piece of literature best captures the events of September 11, 2001 and their aftermath. We can name any number of reasons why authors seem to have underwhelmed us during the past decade. Perhaps they suffered from an extended period of crippling fear of the kind Zadie Smith described just weeks after the attacks. Literary production can tend to feel superfluous in the aftermath of large loss of life. Or perhaps it’s our persistent closeness to the events. We’re still only a decade out, despite the sense that we’ve been waiting in airport security lines for an eternity. (By comparison, Heller wrote Catch-22 almost 20 years after Pearl Harbor; War and Peace wasn’t finished until 50 years after France’s invasion of Russia; and I think the jury may still be out on who wrote the definitive work on Vietnam). We can’t blame earnest authors for trying. It just wasn’t long enough ago yet.
None of this stops critics from trying to figure out the best 9/11 book so far.
We gather books about 9/11 (and some would go as far as to make the hyperbolic-somewhat-tongue-in-cheek claim “they’re all post-9/11 books now”) into a single pile and determine who has best distilled the essence of terrorism’s various traumatic effects on our national psyche and our ordinary life. On one hand, it seems plausible to blame this tic on our collective reduced attention spans and expectations for rapid literary responses to cultural and historical events. Or more simply: we want our book and we want it now. On the other hand, the imperative to produce a 9/11 book became a kind of authorly compulsion — a new way to justify the craft of writing to an audience whose numbers always seem to be inexorably marching toward zero. Amid conversations about “the death of the novel” (and we often fail to remember that these discussions were robust and ominous-sounding back in 2001 too), 9/11 provided a renewed opportunity for books to become culturally relevant. Fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction — the whole lot. Any literary rendering of the post-9/11 world would be preferable to the unmediated reality of it. Or more simply: writers could come to the rescue of a traumatized public. Or even more simply: why shouldn’t it have been writing that could have soothed us and given us some kind of answers?
Whether these considerations will eventually vindicate the authors who tried to translate 9/11 into literature just a few raw years after the fact, we can’t say. My contention is simply that, for now, they shouldn’t be so universally panned for trying. In the meantime, perhaps this decade anniversary isn’t an opportunity to determine who’s written the best book so far, but rather to reconsider accepted notions about what constitutes the Literature of 9/11 in the first place. The books we have written and read since 2001 tell us more about ourselves than about the capacity of literature to encompass the consequences of an event like these terrorist attacks. Rather than rank these books, we should fit them into categories that allow us to consider why we turn to literature in the aftermath of a traumatic event. We can more usefully ask ourselves “Why read?” and think about why this particular historical moment produced such a rapid and rapidly evolving body of literature.
Here are some ideas to help get this conversation started. I don’t intend these bullet point-style assertions to be a decisive argument. Rather, I guess I’m just trying to figure out a way to group and regroup the books that have been on our collective radar for the past ten years.
1. To understand the post-9/11 world, we should look to the literature of the last moments before September 11, 2001.
Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections was published on September 1, 2001. Concerned with biotech, the dot-com crash, and the erosion of middle class family life in millennial America, Franzen’s novel captures a vague sense of menace in the days immediately before 9/11. And, though she has become better known for A Visit from the Goon Squad (which mentions the World Trade Center, only briefly) Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me proves that fiction can often seem to predict the world just ahead of us. The events of the novel so uncannily represent the shadow presence of terrorism in the unseen spaces of American everyday life that Egan, who wrote the book entirely before 9/11, included an afterward to the novel in 2002. She writes: “Had Look at Me been a work-in-progress last fall, I would have had to receive the novel in light of what happened. Instead, it remains an imaginative artifact of a more innocent time.” This last line has always been problematic for me. Were we really that innocent before 9/11? Authors seemed totally capable of exposing the dread underlying the exuberance (rational or otherwise) at the close of the Millennium. I wonder to whether we’ll remember the pre-9/11 years as one of innocence or willful ignorance.
2. There is no single body of 9/11 Literature.
As I have mentioned, the tendency in the past decade has been to lump together all works of fiction about 9/11. As the number of works that deal directly and indirectly with the terrorist attacks has ballooned, the moniker “9/11 Literature” has become a dull catchall term used to describe too many types of books. Instead, we can try to make some distinctions to figure out more precisely what different kinds of books have done, and stop trying to judge them all by the same criteria. It can be helpful, for example, to distinguish between 9/11 Literature and Post-9/11 Literature. Whereas Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Don DeLillo’s Falling Man pivot around the events of September 11, books like Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children suggest how the events and their effects can be pushed to the margins. Works of 9/11 Literature obsess about the intricate and far-reaching effects of 9/11 on the lives of characters, whereas Post-9/11 Literature emphasizes how individuals can move beyond the trauma of the attacks and allow ordinary life to resume its flow.
3. The literary response to 9/11 better helps us understand the longer-term psychological effects of terrorism on families, communities, and nations.
Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close help us understand how the effects of cultural trauma reach into future generations. They explore how we are all implicated into broader narratives of belonging to national and cultural heritages. Spiegelman had to publish the serial version of his comics in Germany because squeamish newspapers in America believed that his critiques of the Bush Administration would be poorly received at home. Likewise, Safran Foer’s novel was frequently criticized as playing on themes of grief and loss that seemed too fresh. As time passes, these criticisms fall away, and what we’re left with is a more subtle understanding of how — in the immediate aftermath of a cultural trauma — we must try to recover as individuals.
4. The relationship between The 9/11 Commission Report and The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation stands as one of the most compelling pairs of books to emerge in the past ten years — and neither one of these is a novel.
While I’d argue that no single works stands out as the definitive representation of the terrorist attacks, a reader could do no better to understand the attacks of September 11, 2001 than to devour the 9/11 Commission’s official report. To 9/11 truthers, it probably makes sense that the government would produce an eloquent and sophisticated rendering of the attacks, and the complicated histories of terrorism and American intelligence failures that led to them. But to the rest of us, it comes as a fascinating surprise — one that reveals the government’s investment in the production of a literary artifact of some serious depth and skilled sentence-making. The 9/11 Commission Report defies the expectation that a government document should be stodgy and defensive. Instead, it reveals — often in a tone that breaks its own rigid impartiality and becomes downright moving — the grating human oversights of regulators and the humanity of the terrorists themselves as they bumblingly tried to find a hiding place in America.
When read alongside Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon’s adaptation of the report, the two works become a breathtaking and genre-bending account of 9/11. Together, they are proof that an event like 9/11 can actually produce new artistic forms. The effort to describe and understand — to probe and render aesthetically — gives rise to new ways of thinking about the world. These are not novels, but they certainly rise to the level of literature, no matter how one decides to define it.
5. It’s time to start re-thinking the place of 9/11 in the landscape of American literary production.
It has become more apparent that 9/11 is moving to the background of our cultural consciousness. Its influence remains, but its effects have faded when compared to what seem like more pressing economic and political concerns. Books like Deborah Eisenberg’s Twilight of the Superheroes help us understand what this process of fading looks like. But to return to Franzen and Egan, no two books seem better suited to the moment after the post-9/11 moment than Freedom and A Visit from the Goon Squad. To understand how authors have begun to fill their blank screens with something other than images of the World Trade Center on fire, it’s hard to do better. Franzen tackles the Bush Administration while Egan projects into a future New York, in which the 9/11 memorial has become an old landmark in Lower Manhattan. Literature looks forward at the next moment — toward a space and time during which we will no longer use the term Post-9/11 to describe ourselves, if only because newer and more troubling problems will take its place.
* * *
I have left out many works and many ideas. Where are Joseph O’Neill and Ian McEwan? Where are Colum McCann and John Updike? I have left out (in the very last minute) Lorraine Adams, whose book Harbor absolutely changed the way I thought about post-9/11 America when I read it, even though it had little if anything to do with 9/11. All of this is just to say: the conversation should continue, and I think it will only get more interesting throughout the next decade.
Image credit: WarmSleepy/Flickr
A little over three years ago, in a fit of apparent insanity, a New York-based independent press bought a sizeable chunk of the short-story collection I’d been working on and published it as a stand-alone volume. I remain proud of the book, A Field Guide to the North American Family, which was reissued last month in paperback. A lot has changed since the end of 2007, though, and the new edition has me thinking again about a couple of misapprehensions I was laboring under at the time of its writing. The first was that inserting an “illustrated fiction” into an otherwise un-illustrated cycle of stories was just the thing to ignite the bidding war that would make me a millionaire. (Thanks a lot, W.G. Sebald!) The more important, related misapprehension, though, has to do with “the future of the book.”
In college, I had been an extracurricular binge-reader of 1960s and ’70s “experimental” literature, in secret rebellion against the masterpieces-only Atkins diet that comprised my coursework. Even in my mid-twenties, I was convinced that the novel of the future would incorporate as much Cortazar and Cather, as much Willie Masters as Wilhelm Meister. History had different ideas, as usual. Two weeks after my exuberantly book-y book came out – replete with color photography and typographic mayhem – Amazon launched the first Kindle, which sold out in less than a day. The book of the future, it turned out, had a built-in battery. And what I’d just published would never work on it.
Then again, as my therapist suggests (though my accountant begs to differ) maybe this accidental Kindle-proofing is a blessing in disguise. My nostalgia for print, after all, is something like Balzac’s for the wooden printing press in Lost Illusions:
At the time when this story opens, the Stanhope press and the ink-distributing roller had not yet come into use in small provincial printing-houses…. [Now] the rapid spread of machine presses has swept away all this obsolete gear to which, for all its imperfections, we owe the beautiful books printed by Elzevir, Plantin, Aldus Didot, and the rest…
In the novel that follows, Balzac links speedier and more efficient printing technology, and the larger cultural pressures it stands for, to the artistic failures of his would-be hero, the “provincial” Lucien Chardon. Unable to withstand the allure of a fast franc, Lucien becomes in Paris whatever is French for “sellout.” (Not to mention – horrors – a critic!) But I would become no Lucien Chardon – not with Field Guide, anyway. To “sell out,” you first have to sell, and in committing to the ideal of the “beautiful” book, I had pretty much guaranteed that this particular project would remain unsullied by commerce.
Now, in honor of the future that never was, the durable pigments of the almost obsolete, I offer you the following trade secrets to fellow writers. The availability for the Kindle of some of the titles mentioned below points to the difficulty of the task; nonetheless, here are:
Seven Ways to Kindle-proof Your Book
Step 1. Use Color
The iPad and Barnes & Noble’s NookColor have already gone some way toward countering this strategy, and Amazon is rumored to have plans to follow suit with a full color, full-functionality tablet. As of this writing, however, the top-selling eReader, the Kindle, remains a black-and-white only affair. I suggest, then, that all of you aspiring Kindle-proofers out there familiarize yourselves with the color palette on your word-processors. You may, as Mark Z. Danielewski does in House of Leaves, choose to assign a single word its own color, like the sodapop in the old Cherry 7-Up commercials. (Isn’t it cool…in pink?) Or you may opt for a subtler approach, à la Richard Flanagan. In Gould’s Book of Fish, Flanagan uses a different color for each chapter, to represent the different dyes employed by his ichthycidal narrator. Still not persuaded? I once heard that Faulkner planned to use different-colored type to distinguish the different voices in As I Lay Dying. If it’s good enough for a Nobelist, isn’t it good enough for you?
Step 2. Illustrate, Illustrate, Illustrate
In an essay published in The New Yorker a couple years back, Nicholson Baker complained that “photographs, charts, diagrams, foreign characters, and tables don’t fare so well on the little gray screen” of the Kindle. Of course, as with Step 1, the iPad complicates things, and glossy (“glossy”?) magazine readers are apparently “flocking” to the NookColor. (Constant vigilance is the price of Kindle-proofing!) But it’s worth pointing out that, where words on a page are an abstraction of an abstraction, illustrations are only one representative step away from the visual world. And so the venerable tradition of the illuminated manuscript still seems to favor, at this stage of the game, the codex book. No wonder that, as writers grow anxious about the fate of print, we’re seeing an uptick in illustrated fiction; it’s the literary equivalent of abstract painting’s retort to photography. (This is to say nothing of graphic novels.) Lavishing attention on hand-made illustrations – as in Joe Meno’s Demons in the Spring – or incorporating photographs, like Rod Sweet and Tim Williams’ Instructions for the Apocalypse or Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts, is a great way to add an extra exclamation point to your literary pooh-poohing of the eReader.
Step 3. Play With Text, Typeface, and White Space
eReaders currently use two approaches to rendering text. One is quasi-photographic, but the Kindle’s remains the more battery-efficient method of imposing a standard typeface. This makes the effects of a textually playful book like Danielewski’s House of Leaves or Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel or William H. Gass’ The Tunnel – difficult to render on a Kindle. If you want to up the degree of difficulty, you can try combining this with step 1, following Gass’ lead in Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, wherein text in a range of typefaces and sizes curves and distends and floats around and behind the illustrations. And then there’s white space. Mallarmé may have got there first, but Blake Butler’s There is No Year is moving the ball forward. It’s available for Kindle, but only the good Lord and Jeff Bezos know how it reads there. (I don’t think I need to point out the irony of the Amazon customer review for A Visit from the Goon Squad that finds “the ‘powerpoint’ chapter…extremely difficult to read on the Kindle.”)
Step 4. Run With Scissors
The opening story of John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, famously invites readers to take scissors to it and create a Mobius strip. This cut-up aesthetic is more literal in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes, which slices and dices the pages of Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles to create pages like lace. It’s a piece of found prose-poetry whose sentences change as you turn the page. Except on the Kindle, where it doesn’t – and couldn’t – exist.
Step 5. Go Aleatory
Narrative fiction, as Vladimir Propp would tell you, need not proceed in a straight line. Presumably, the HopScotching of Cortazar’s Rayuela would be easy enough to approximate via hyperlink on a Kindle, as might something structured like Raymond Queneau’s “A Story As You Like It.” But what about a story where the order of the pieces genuinely doesn’t matter. Or one where an Oulippan element of chance is built in? A narrative like Coover’s “deck of cards” story from A Child Again, say. Or B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, which consists of a beginning, an ending, and 25 middle chapters to be shuffled and read at random. Speaking of The Unfortunates…
Step 6. Put It In A Box
Gass at one point imagined reinforcing the random, “pile of pages” aspect of The Tunnel by printing it loose-leaf and selling it in a box. It can’t be any coincidence that, in the age of the Kindle, the book as boxed set has been making a comeback. New Directions, in addition to The Unfortunates, has given us the slipcovered (and thus far unKindled) Microscripts of Robert Walser. McSweeney’s, another box-loving press, has delivered any number of issues of the Quarterly, not to mention One Hundred and Forty Five Stories in boxed form. And in 2008, Hotel St. George Press published Ben Greenman’s archetypally box-intensive Correspondences, albeit in a limited edition.
Step 7. Pile on the End Matter
This strategy exploits not so much a technical weakness of the Kindle as a practical one. My theory is that, because the number of pages remaining in a book aren’t palpable on a digital device, readers are less likely to go digging around in appendices, acknowledgments, and so forth. The endnotes function on the Kindle apparently makes it pretty easy to jump from the main text to the famous fine print of Infinite Jest. But with other kinds of end matter, aren’t you likely to hit “The End” and think: I’m done? Writers who sneak interesting and potentially meaningful information into the back of the book are thus a step closer to Kindle-proofing than the rest of us. Here I’m thinking specifically of William T. Vollmann, whose resolutely booktacular books often contain dozens, even hundreds of pages of end matter (interesting in direct proportion to the interest of the main text.) Or Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project. But I was struck, reading Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual this spring, by the way the various indexes and appendices offered a variety of possible reformattings of the main text.
Bonus List: 10 Pretty Damn Kindle-Proof (at least, as of this writing) Books:
1. Nox, by Anne Carson (Rules Exploited: 1, 2, 3, 6): In many ways, this boxed version of a mourning journal Carson made after the death of her brother is the paragon of the Kindle-proof book: a book built out of books, and alert to its own status as an object.
2. The Original of Laura, by Vladimir Nabokov (Steps Taken: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5): The chief attraction of this slender posthumous work is its Chip Kidd design, which invites readers to cut out facsimiles of the notecards Nabokov composed on and make their own book…though, given the $35 cover price, I can’t imagine too many readers took Kidd up on it.
3. A Field Guide to the North American Family, by yours truly (1, 2, 3, 5): This is probably the only excuse I’ll ever have to insert my name in a list between Nabokov’s and Jonathan Safran Foer’s. There. I’ve done it.
4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer (1, 2, 3): A Kindle version of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close actually exists, but, even if Amazon were to insert an animation, there is just no way to achieve in e-form the flip-book effect on which this novel’s conclusion rises…and falls.
5. The Principles of Uncertainty, by Maira Kalman (1, 2): Okay, this is actually pretty easy to recreate on an iPad. But who would want to read this gorgeous thing on a screen?
6. Dictionary of the Khazars, by Milorad Pavic (5): The chief Kindle-resistant feature of Dictionary of the Khazars is that it is actually two books: a “male version” and a (slightly different) “female version,” bound back to back. You move from one to the other by flipping the book over and starting from the other end. Kindle that, Amazon!
7. Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski (1, 3, 5): Unlike House of Leaves, the National-Book-Award-nominated Only Revolutions is too insanely Kindle-proof to actually be a good book. I found its main text – which takes the flip & read logic of Pavic a step further – to be a hackneyed pastiche of Finnegans Wake. But you can’t blame a guy for trying.
8. One Hundred Thousand Million Poems, by Raymond Queneau (4, 5): This echt-Oulippan “poetry machine” is a set of 10 sonnets, bound to a spine, but with incisions between the lines that extend out to the edge of the page. Readers can manipulate the pages to form and reform sonnets. Mathematically, there are 1,000,000,000,000,000 possible variations. In theory, an eBook equivalent of this would work beatifully (you’d just have to build in a “shuffle” function) – though by equivalence rather than reproduction.
9. Rising Up and Rising Down (the unabridged version), by William T. Vollmann (2, 3, 5, 7): In theory, this should be the perfect eBook candidate, in the sense that no one wants to lug the damn thing on the subway. It is, in a sense, almost all appendix. I’d bet dollars to donuts, though, that, via the logic sketched in point 7 above, no one would ever get through a digital edition. Vollmann’s detractors would argue that’s a good thing. I’m not so sure…
10. Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak (1, 3): The brilliance of Where the Wild Things Are, as a children’s librarian once pointed out to me, is not just the illustrations, but the way they gradually expand to fill the page spreads (what’s called a full-bleed)…and then recede again into white space. It enacts for children the dialectic of wildness and safety that is the book’s explicit subject, and has, this librarian insisted, a deeply therapeutic effect. Wild Things, that is, uses its book-ness beautifully. You could reproduce this on a screen…but unless the aspect ratio was 2:1, it would have to be in thumbnail form. Perhaps the solution, as Reif Larsen has suggested, is to get away from the idea of reproduction altogether. Rather than deluding ourselves that the eBook is a book, we should think carefully about the effects each can achieve that the other can’t, and then work to find equivalents between them. And lo and behold, a fantastically inventive app of Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet (Steps Taken: 2, 3) is now available for the iPad…perhaps pointing the way to yet another future of the book.
The IQ Bubble
Oskar Schell, age nine, is a genius. Likewise Billy Argo and T.S. Spivet, both 10. At 14, Alma Singer is at least hella precocious. And with subspecialties including M-theory, French horn, and the Future of Humanity, her contemporary Ruprecht van Doren is off the charts (though with a name like Ruprecht van Doren, you’d sort of have to be). Genius is, by definition, exceptional, and until recently it was only in Lake Wobegon and the films of Wes Anderson that all children could be above average. But in the last few years the Anglo-American novel, full of characters like the foregoing, has come to resemble a kind of overdriven gifted-and-talented program: one your own kid would never make it into.
To be sure, the ‘tween geniuses of Jonathan Safran Foer et al. are not without precedent. It’s been almost two centuries since Dickens loosed his intrepid moppets on the streets of London. (Little David Copperfield is, if not quite Mensa material, surely a Child of Distinction.) And American literature has always been unusually interested in kids. If much of Russian fiction, as Dostoevsky reportedly said, emerged from Gogol’s overcoat, our own novelistic tradition might be said to have emerged from that of Mark Twain, who found in his Hannibal boyhood both a wellspring of vernacular comedy and a nexus of the great American tensions: freedom versus settlement, the individual versus society, the past versus the future. Huck Finn rendered James Fennimore Cooper’s Mohican fantasias on the same themes instantly old hat. Who needs noble savages when you’ve got adolescents? (Is there any difference, in the end?)
Even in America, however, literary innocence has historically been a rigged game. With its tropism for irony, the novel as a form prods its protagonists toward experience, toward compromise, and toward “sivilization” – in short, to growing up. Unless, that is, the child is more civilized than the man, as seems to be the case with the current bumper crop of prodigies. These kids’ real forebears are not Augie March or Maisie Farange, but comic book superheroes, Harriet the Spy, and – preeminently – the novels of J.D. Salinger. Like the Glasses, they seem too good for the lousy adult world, and perhaps too good to be true.
In this (and, it must be said, in its gargantuan length), Adam Levin’s literary debut, The Instructions, would seem to be some sort of apotheosis. Its 10-year-old narrator and protagonist, Gurion Maccabee, is not just another kid genius with an improbable name; he’s also worldly, charismatic, quick with a joke or to light up your smoke, a martial artist, a sometime-telepath, a devout half-Ethiopian, half-Ashkenazi Israelite…and, oh, yeah: quite possibly the Messiah. It’s easy to see why, even if you liked Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and The Collected Works of T.S. Spivet, you might feel you need this wisenheimer’s 1,000-page scripture like you need a hole in your head. But The Instructions turns out to be, for better and for worse, something like the Only Kid Genius Novel You’ll Ever Need. That is, it simultaneously makes good on the subgenre’s promise and exposes its limitations. And en route to its wacko finale, it begins to illuminate the begged question: Why so much genius? Why now?
And a Child Shall Lead Them
The Instructions opens with our narrator inside a cage. Or rather, CAGE—a special facility within Aptakisic Junior High School for students with behavioral problems. It isn’t explained at first how this CAGE works, exactly, or what those initials stand for. What we get, instead, is Gurion’s voice—baroque, headlong, impertinent, a gallimaufry of high-flying excursus and middle-school pidgin (“banced,” “snat,” “chomsky”). His monologue (“Scripture,” he insists) careens from linguistics to theodicy to how to build your own small arms from household oddments. Underneath, though, a single question niggles: What’s a kid like you doing in a place like this?
Levin parcels the answer out slowly. Which turns out to be a good thing, because the plot—basically boy meets girl, girl’s a goy, mayhem ensues—is a pretty thin reed on which to hang three pounds of book. The entire novel covers only the four days leading up to what a mock-prefatory note has hinted will be some kind of in-school insurrection (variously referred to as “the Damage Proper;” “the 11/17 Miracle;” and “the Gurionic War.”) In the absence of much action, it’s the mystery of Gurion’s personality that keeps us reading. Well, that and to see what kind of crazy shit he’ll say next.
As any kid genius will, Gurion tap-dances all over the line between precocity and preciousness. Levin, who studied with George Saunders at Syracuse, clearly admires the miglior fabbro’s demotic hijinks, and Gurion often achieves a Saundersish charm, both in rat-a-tat dialogue and in casual stabs of description that bring the world of junior high back like yesterday’s hot lunch. Ron Desormie “taught Gym in shorts that his wang stretched the crotch of”—you pretty much had me at “wang.” But just as often there’s an inability to leave well enough alone (Desormie also “hummed out a melody with lipfart percussion and aggressively dance-walked and thought it was strutting.”)
Such compulsive effervescence is both a liability and an asset. On the one hand, it flattens the characters around Gurion (with a couple of exceptions), and thus the stakes for the impending “Miracle”-cum-“War.” Eliza June Watermark, his shiksa love-interest, is more a cluster of attributes than a fully formed person. The keepers of the CAGE are, like the lipfarting, dance-walking Desormie, cartoons. And I’d swear that Flowers, the middle-aged juju man who guides Gurion through the writing of the scripture we are even now reading, is actually Bleeding Gums Murphy, from The Simpsons:
Even if what you write about is boring, you can’t be writing boring. Seem to me like you want to write about you wang, anyhow. Now you wang—that’s a good example cause it’s boring to me […] One thing ain’t boring to me about you wang is how you’re callin it wang.
On the other hand, Levin ain’t boring, which is important, when your scripture is also a tome. And our inability to see actual people behind Levin’s antic renderings is a powerful corollary for what will come to seem the narrator’s egocentrism, the child trapped inside the prodigy.
The first half of The Instructions is also enlivened by lengthy “inserts”: emails, school assignments, a psychological assessment. Through these chinks in the monologuist’s armor, we begin to glimpse Gurion from angles other than his own. Flowers may not be, as therapist-in-training Sandra Billings suggests, his “imaginary friend” (after all—disappointingly—Mr. and Mrs. Maccabee can see him, too), but her otherwise reasonable conclusions and the vehemence with which Gurion doth protest remind us that, like any scripture, this one is open to interpretation:
It may be the case […] that Gurion is by nature an ideal student. […] On the other hand, it may be the case that Gurion, once an ideal student, has become […] the dangerous and even doomed boy indicated by his record.
It is in this kind of irony, rather than in verbal vaudeville, that Levin begins to earn the jacket-copy comparisons to David Foster Wallace. His greatest gifts are also, as Gurion would put it, his most “stealth”: a dialectical intelligence, and crucially, a sense of paradox. The specific paradoxes to which the novel keeps returning involve justice, peace, and power. And these are not mere abstractions, confined to the Torah stories that obsess Gurion; their real-world consequences range from in-school bullying to foreign policy. Such subtexts, handled subtly at first, come crashing into the foreground in a bravura set-piece near the novel’s midway point. The child prodigy thinks back to September 11 of his kindergarten year, and to events it takes more than a high Myers-Briggs score to comprehend.
In the novel’s second half, “The Gurionic War,” Levin dispenses, somewhat disastrously, with these insertions, leaving us with hundreds of pages of unadulterated prodigy. If this shaves a few ounces off the book, it also lays bare the geologic pacing of the plot. And the solipsism of Gurion’s point-of-view becomes not just something that seduces the other Aptakisic ne’er-do-wells, but something inflicted on the reader. It’s as if The Instructions has painted itself into a corner. Nonetheless, there’s always the possibility that Gurion will run up a wall, or sprout wings, and so we press on to the long-promised climax.
I’m not going to spoil that climax, other than invoking Einstein’s suggestion that no worthy problem is ever solved on the plane of its conception. On the level of action, Levin gives us a significant payoff—he has to, after so many pages, or we’d want to egg his house—but in aesthetic terms, I was unpersuaded. Until. Until the abrupt return (right around the point where Philip Roth makes a cameo) of other, opposing voices. The novel’s conclusion, as distinct from the climax, juxtaposes several points-of-view and timeframes, throwing the central questions of Gurion’s existence back into high relief. And what saves the novel from self-indulgence is that they are also among the burning ethical questions of our time. For example: who has the right, in a fallen world, to dispense justice? Who has the right to judge? And what separates a savior from a lunatic?
Cult of the Child
It can’t be an accident that the current boom in novels about kid geniuses (or wizards) coincides with the dawn of a new age of catastrophe: buildings falling, anthrax, school shootings, wars, near economic collapse, and the palpable twilight of the American empire. Back in the ‘60s, establishment types liked to imagine that the young people mucking up the nation’s campuses were merely restaging their childhood as politics – acting out their Oedipal fantasies. Now, though, it has begun to seem that the terms are reversed; that we are trying to escape our political traumas by returning to childhood. Botox, Facebook, Pixar, skateboards and ringer tees…
In particular, Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s, which publishes The Instructions, has made childhood into a cult phenomenon. Its quarterly is nostalgic in ways big (design) and small (plenty of coming-of-age stories), and most of its best books (What is the What, The Children’s Hospital, Here They Come) center on the experiences of children. Indeed, childhood delimits the McSweeney’s aesthetic as such—the meringue of whimsy on top, and underneath the moral fiber that is our birthright. (“I am tired,” runs one epigraph to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering…er… Genius. “I am true of heart!”)
The editors of N+1, precocious themselves, were quick to spot this. “Eggersards returned to the claims of childhood,” they noted in their first issue. But they were incorrect to claim that “Transcendence would not figure in [Eggersard] thought,” as anyone can tell you who remembers that moment at the end of AHWOSG where Dave and his kid brother run back and forth on the beach chasing the world’s most symbolic frisbee. To be a child is, for the duration of that childhood, to be transcendent.
The kid genius is, then—almost uniquely in our culture—a nakedly utopian figure (though a conservative one, in that his promised land lays in the past). He is wise. He is powerful. He is moral. The grinding compromises of bourgeois life and the adult obtusenesses that stands in for it do not concern him; growing up is selling out. He will, like Oskar Matzerath of The Tin Drum (for whom Foer’s Oskar is presumably named) stay small, and, in so doing, stay pure.
Putting Away Childish Things
At its best, the kid genius novel works as a kind of allegory, albeit at the cost of turning everything—even the world-historical—personal. At its worst, it represents just another flight from the ethical, into the ready embrace of the aesthetic. In the end, the signal achievement of The Instructions is that it manages to reopen the communicating channels between these binaries.
In so doing, this entertaining novel clears at least one of the hurdles of art: its strengths become inextricable from its weaknesses. Levin’s willingness to hew to the boundaries of his character’s skull—a kind of cage inside a CAGE inside a cage inside a cage—may sometimes make us wish Gurion would just take a Xanax and go to bed. But it also brings us into the presence of a fully realized consciousness, which is surely one of the noblest tasks of fiction.
To call The Instructions a young man’s book is to say partly that Levin, who himself may be a kind of genius, has many books ahead of him. And like Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies, that other hypertrophied iteration of the kid genius novel, this one ultimately keeps in view a world of very adult consequences. To the innocence we’ve been protesting this last decade, it manages to restore connotations of blindness, gullibility, and misapprehension. And so it may mark both the culmination and the dissolution of its subgenre—a turn away from the handsome doll-furniture of our childhood rooms, and toward the world writ large.
Sidebar: A Brief Timeline of the Literary Kid Genius
Seymour Glass, Seymour: An Introduction (1963)
Simons Everson Manigault, Edisto (1984)
Phillip, A History of Luminous Motion (1989)
Hal Incandenza, Infinite Jest (1996)
Magid Iqbal, White Teeth (2000)
Ludo Newman, The Last Samurai (2002)
Oskar Schell, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005)
Blue van der Meer, Special Topics in Calamity Physics (2006)
Billy Argo, The Boy Detective Fails (2006)
Rumika Vasi, Gifted (2007)
Saul Dawson-Smith, The Truth About These Strange Times (2008)
T.S. Spivet, The Collected Works of T.S. Spivet (2009)
Ruprecht van Doren, Skippy Dies (2010)
Gurion Maccabee, The Instructions (2010)
Jonathan Franzen has always been outspoken about his disdain of e-readers. In an interview with The AV Club, he said the Kindle “makes everything seem unsubstantial,” that “the words seem more arbitrary, less intrinsically valuable.” Yet Franzen writes the kinds of novels that are best read on the Kindle. They demand attention solely to the text, the kind of undistracted reading environment that makes e-readers so appealing — not to mention the perk of carrying a small electronic device instead of a 700-page hardcover copy of Freedom.
It seems fitting that Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book Tree of Codes was published around the same Christmas season when the Kindle became Amazon’s best-selling product ever. The Kindle does away with all manners of a novel’s physical form and design; Tree of Codes exists solely to embrace those things, and to be embraced, but gently.
The die-cut interior of Tree of Codes is made up of select words, carefully re-assembled from Foer’s favorite novel, Bruno Schultz’s The Street of Crocodiles, to create an entirely new narrative. (Cut ten letters from the original title and you get Tree of Codes.) If Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is the book equivalent of a mash up, perhaps Tree of Codes is akin to 8-bit music: it’s both a reduction and reinterpretation of another work. Visually, the sparse prose and overwhelming negative space leaves a stunning impression, (accurately captured in what might be the least-annoying book trailer of all time). It’s a wonderful experiment in what a book can be, and also home to a mediocre novel.
What Foer has done is a little gimmicky and not entirely new — William Burroughs and Brion Gyson did a similar cut-up book in the ‘60s — but the reading experience is an absorbing challenge. The first thing you have to do with Tree of Codes is figure out how to read it. I don’t mean interpreting the text — the prose, though occasionally aloof, reads as a fairly straightforward narrative — but how to physically hold the book. Because of Tree’s die-cut pages, it’s hard to tell what words belong on the page you’re looking at and what’s on the next page or two. After a few minutes, I figured out that the best method was to keep a finger under the page I was reading, bending it slightly, to give the words more depth (again, I mean physical depth).
Some readers have taken to inserting a blank sheet of paper behind each page, but doing that feels like a denial of the book’s design. There’s something haunting about seeing what lays ahead, just out of focus. Tree of Codes is intent on distracting its audience and making them conscious of the reading experience. The pages are also fragile, and I found myself holding Tree of Codes with extra care. According to Foer, the binding had to be paperback — if it was hardcover, the book would “collapse in on itself.” It shows consideration to the book not as an art object, but a book as a thing you read.
The format of a book doesn’t need to be challenging or difficult. But if authors really want to defend the idea of the physical book, they need to consider how the medium actually affects the reading experience. The example that comes to mind is Dave Eggers, who writes in QuarkXPress instead of a regular word processor, which might explain why McSweeney’s does just fine without selling books in ePub format.
Despite it’s unconventional form, Tree of Codes is actually a natural step for Foer, as a novelist who has toyed with visual elements like type, white space, and color in his earlier works. In an interview with The Morning News in 2005 (just after the release of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), Foer said he “really like[d] books as objects, as little intimate sculptures that you have a real interaction with.”
Sculpture is a medium that is appreciated for its form, texture, its third dimension; sculpture is also a medium that isn’t necessarily interacted with, even touched, unless you want to be escorted to the curb by museum security guards. Really, the sculpture comparison does a disservice to what a book really is: a mass-produced object that you spend hours holding.
It’s just too bad that in the case of Tree of Codes, the reading experience is far more interesting than the actual novel. Holding the book, you can feel an absence of weight in the middle. Even within 3,000 words, Tree of Codes inconsistently waivers from abstract poignance (“The tree stood with the arms upraised and screamed and screamed.”) to the sort of pretentious mediocrity you might find in DeviantArt poetry (“I could feel waves of laid bare, of dreams.”). It boils down to whether or not you find Foer’s lyricism to be poetic or merely sentimental.
But credit is due to Foer for taking Schultz’s work and making it his own. Trees features the familiar fallible perspective from Everything is Illuminated and the Freudian relationships from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. There are also allusions to a vague disaster — is it a plague or the Holocaust? — that amounts to an equally ambiguous tragedy that is better felt than understood.
When I finished Tree of Codes, I placed it in on my bookshelf. But it felt as if it didn’t belong stuffed next to my copy of Freedom — which has endured being borrowed by three different people since August. Tree of Codes might be a much worse novel than Freedom, but it’s a delicate book. There are thousands of copies of Tree of Codes, and yet mine feels special. It’s a reminder that the book is a precious thing.
In Dan Chaon’s story “Prodigal,” from his collection Among the Missing, the narrator says: “When I was young, I used to identify with those precociously perceptive child narrators one finds in books. You know the type. They always have big dark eyes. They observe poetic details, clear-sighted, very sensitive… Now that I have children of my own… I think of that gentle, dewy-eyed first person narrator and it makes my skin crawl.”
A New York Times review of the recent novel Mercury Under My Tongue praised the book by saying of its protagonist, “Fortunately, unlike the precocious child narrators that populate so much fiction, there isn’t a whiff of gee-whiz wonderment or innocence about him.”
I love precocious narrators. Of course the child narrator is not a new construct, but some of the most buzzed-about novels of the 2000s, such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, have featured memorable young leads. The books have met with both exuberant acclaim and accusations of being cloying, gimmicky, mannered, precious, faux-innocent, forced, unbelievable, exasperating, show-offy, or just plain annoying. But I admire the books’ inventiveness, and I love the characters’ idiosyncratic voices, unapologetic intelligence and bold curiosity. And, like Chaon’s narrator, and probably like many lifelong readers, I see a bit of myself in them.
With so many precocious children and their quirks to keep track of, here is a guide to some of the genre’s recent standouts:
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: Oskar Schell, 9, “inventor, jewelry designer, jewelry fabricator, amateur entomologist, Francophile, vegan, origamist, pacifist, percussionist, amateur astronomer, computer consultant, amateur archaeologist, collector.” Having found a key left behind by his father, who died in the 9/11 attacks, Oskar sets out to find the lock.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics: Blue van Meer, 16, who never met a simile, metaphor, parenthetical quip, reference, citation, or Strategic Capitalization she didn’t like. Her mother died in a car accident; Dad is a brilliant, nomadic, and pompous professor.
Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: Christopher Boone, 15, autistic and mathematically gifted. A fan of Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles, he investigates who killed his neighbor’s dog, and uncovers the truth about his mother’s death.
Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love: Alma Singer, 14, who keeps a notebook called “How to Survive in the Wild” inspired by her adventurous father, who died of cancer. She is trying to find the author of an old novel that her mother is translating.
Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet: T.S. Spivet, 12, a cartography genius traveling by train, alone, from a Montana ranch to Washington, DC, to accept an award at the Smithsonian.
In each of these books, told in first-person, voice is central. Reviewers often remark that the protagonists sound nothing like a “real” child or teenager. But aside from Curious Incident, which is meant to be a feat of channeling—this is how the world looks through the eyes and brain of an autistic boy—reality and fidelity are not of primary concern. Lacking much real-world and life experience, the characters filter their lives through film noir, cowboy movies, detective stories, Jewish mysticism, novels and history.
As T.S. says before beginning his train journey, “I guess I was a sucker for historical myth just like Father. But whereas his Spiral of Nostalgic Unfulfillment was directed at the cinematic West of the trail drive, one need only whisper the phrase ‘bustling railroad town’ to raise my blood pressure a notch.” Alma’s hero is the aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who disappeared during WWII. Blue describes Hannah Schneider, the film teacher whose mysterious death fuels the book’s plot, as straight out of a black and white classic:
She had an elegant sort of romantic, bone-sculpted face, one that took well to both shadows and light… Within her carriage… was a little bit of the Paramount lot, a little neat scotch and air kisses at Ciro’s. I felt, when she opened her mouth, she wouldn’t utter the crumbly speak of modernity, but would use moist words like beau, top drawer and sound (only occasionally ring-a-ding-ding).
These influences from previous eras create an internal logic for each book. The trick is similar to that of the movie Brick, which transported the conventions of ‘30s detective fiction to a Southern California high school. Would a high schooler say “No, bulls would gum it. They’d flash their dusty standards at the wide-eyes and probably find some yegg to pin, probably even the right one”? Of course not. But as Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir wrote of the film, “it’s an engrossing fantasy picture that in some ways gets close to the feeling of teenage life, even though it bears almost no relationship to its reality.”
For his Spring 2008 ready-to-wear collection, Marc Jacobs designed shoes that had squat heels jutting out backwards, horizontally, from the ball of the foot. I love shoes as much as I love reading, and found this pair quite special: Jacobs had managed to rearrange conventional elements into something whimsical, and expand the idea of what a shoe can be.
Most books fit within a remarkably limited format, but formal inventiveness is a salient trait of these novels. Like children, they don’t always follow the rules. The books include maps and diagrams in the margins; pages in color and marked up with a red correction pen; illustrations and photos; blank pages; pages with type so dense they’re unreadable; foot notes and citations; chapters named for classic books or numbered with increasing prime numbers; and codas of a mathematical proof (Curious Incident), a Final Exam (Special Topics), and a flip book (Extremely Loud). According to critics like B.R. Myers, whose article “A Bag of Tired Tricks” appeared in The Atlantic upon the publication of Extremely Loud, my enjoyment of such “spurious playfulness” makes me “easily amused.”
But I don’t see these flourishes as gratuitous examples of “look at me! I’m different and clever!” T.S. makes sense of the world through mapping, and as he deals with the recent death of his younger brother “during an accident with a gun in the barn that no one ever talked about,” the tragedy’s repercussions are fittingly explored in the margins. Christopher’s brain functions in an emotionally detached, logical/mathematical/schematic way that necessitates diagrams. I found Extremely Loud’s backwards-flipbook, in which photos show a leaping body rising upwards alongside one of the twin towers, a moving visualization of Oskar’s biggest wish. Plus, it’s simply fun to turn the page and find a picture. It’s a fitting throwback to children’s books, as well as a nod to the hyperlinked/sidebar-ed/multimedia texts we read, without fuss, online.
The playfulness extends to language. More than any book I can remember, Special Topics delights in inventive, extended description. Listen to Blue riff on a central character:
He was a Goodnight Moon (Brown, 1947). Goodnight Moons had duvet eyes, shadowy eyelids, a smile like a hammock and a silvered, sleepy countenance… Goodnight Moons could be male or female and were universally adored. Even teachers worshipped them. They looked to Goodnight Moons whenever they asked a question and even though they answered with a drowsy, wholly incorrect answer, the teacher would say, ‘Oh, wonderful.’
None of the precocious narrators are Goodnight Moons. In fact, let’s call them The Outsiders (Hinton, 1967), though with less class warfare. They do not fit easily into the world. Aside from Alma’s Russian immigrant pen pal, none of them has a true friend his or her own age; professors, teachers, parents, grandparents and strangers to whom they write letters provide a tenuous social life. They are unpopular at school, lonely, awkward, weird.
I was not a 12-year-old cartography genius or pint-sized private eye, but I was an overachieving kid who took a while to figure out how to be smart without being an annoying show-off—a quality of precocious narrators that often bugs readers. I recently re-read the journal that I kept through high school, which was not all that long ago. The content breakdown is approximately 60% about boys, 30% about how lonely I felt, and 10% about how great I was doing on my AP physics tests. I had forgotten about the time I gossiped about how academically stupid my crush’s girlfriend was, and then he confronted me about it via AIM conversation. Which is to say, I really could have used a bookish friend like Alma or Blue. (And like Blue, whose father quizzes her on vocabulary and makes her perform readings of classic plays during long car trips, I had parent-assigned summer homework. I remember writing short reports about the book Cheaper by the Dozen and the sport of diving; homework earned points, which could be redeemed for sodas and CDs.)
The books also nimbly capture how, when brains trump social skills, you end up feeling both older and younger than everyone around you. Alma and Blue are clueless about boys and have disastrous first kisses, but are ambitious enough to unravel complicated mysteries. And that’s what’s heartbreaking about these books: they put smart kids in the position to feel like they can, and should, come up with answers to some of life’s biggest questions.
Because for all their cuteness, the novels are really about surviving death and loss. Several of the characters assemble literal survival kits, that include items like a telescope, compasses, drafting paper, duct tape, a stuffed animal, a snakebite kit, iodine pills, Swiss Army knives, a copy of Edible Plants and Flowers in North America, and Juicy Juice boxes. But what good is a compass or stuffed animal—where can you go, and what second-rate comfort will you find?—when you are a child whose parent or sibling has died?
As a culture, we have an odd relationship with high-achieving youths. The media scrambles to cover four-year-old abstract artists, 12-year-old fashion bloggers, 13-year-olds who climb Mt. Everest—but we regard the little prodigies with a mix of admiration, disbelief, mistrust and even hostility. (Witness the backlash against some of the precociously talented young novelists themselves, like accusations that Pessl only got a book deal because she’s pretty, and the phenomenon of “Schadenfoer“; note the glee people are taking in mocking Krauss’ recent over-the-top blurb.)
The other day, I overheard a commercial advertising a contest that would reward “the fastest, most accurate texter.” Then I learned that Jersey Shore’s The Situation had inked a book deal.
In an age of shortening attention spans and the glorification of stupidity, I find it comforting and exciting to spend time with young characters for whom books, maps, notebooks, letters, research, drawings, imagined inventions and classic films are central and essential. Precocious narrators, and the ambitious novelists who create them, give me hope that our culture can keep evolving without sliding into Idiocracy, and stand as proof of the power of intelligence, imagination, curiosity, and even “gee-whiz wonderment.”
In The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, T.S. coins the term “Stenpock,” after his science teacher, Mr. Stenpock. A Stenpock is someone “who insists on staying within the confines of his or her job title and harbors no passion for the offbeat or the incredible.” Precocious narrators are anti-Stenpocks, and I’m a sucker for them.
[Image credit: Inna]
Jerome Weeks has published a long, thoughtful essay asking why all the talk about our culture needing a great “9/11 novel.” Don Delillo has this discussion back in the book pages with his new book, Falling Man, though Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Deborah Eisenberg’s collection Twilight of the Superheroes among several others are examples of so-called “9/11 fiction.” Weeks writes:Why do we expect our writers to produce the “Great 9/11 novel” anyway? Has there ever been a “great” Pearl Harbor novel — the event most often compared to the Towers’ collapse? From Here to Eternity is about all that memory can conjure up, and it surely doesn’t qualify as great.I would argue that nearly every serious novel written since 9/11 is a “9/11 novel.” Writers, artists, and filmmakers, consciously or subconsciously, react to the world around them some way, and 9/11, from many angles, is incontrovertibly a part of our world. For example, even Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which is set in an alternate universe in which a temporary Jewish homeland has been set up in Alaska, is a “9/11 novel” in that it has internalized the post-9/11 sensibilities of shadowy government meddling in the Middle East and the feeling of an impending global and religiously motivated conflict. To expect a novel to explicitly place 9/11 into a context that offers us all some greater understanding of it is to misunderstand how fiction works, as Jerome Weeks implies. What we are really looking for (as ever) is a defining novel of our time.
The IMPAC shortlist has arrived. If you don’t know about the IMPAC, it’s a very unique prize with a very long longlist. This year’s longlist was composed of nominees from 169 libraries in 45 countries around the world. Those picks are then whittled down to a shortlist via a panel of judges. As you’ll see from the shortlist, since the process leading up to this award takes so long, some of the books aren’t exactly new. I think involving libraries makes the IMPAC unique compared to a lot of other awards out there. It seems a lot more egalitarian than, say, the Booker or the National Book Award, and I appreciate the international flavor as well. There’s more info about the award at the IMPAC site. Now, here’s the shortlist with some comments:Arthur and George by Julian Barnes – Was shortlisted for the Booker back in 2005 – excerptA Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry – Joined Barnes on the 2005 Booker shortlist.Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee – This book was featured in our long ago post “The beauty of British book design.”Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer – Corey took a look at this book in a “CVBoMC” installment last year. – excerpt.The Short Day Dying by Peter Hobbs – This debut effort by British novelist Hobbes was nominated by a single library in Bergen, NorwayNo Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy – With The Road getting all the praise these days, some might forget that McCarthy’s previous novel hit shelves just 21 months ago, a blink of an eye for a writer who’s written ten books in 41 years – excerptOut Stealing Horses by Per Petterson – This book by the Norwegian Petterson won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize last year. It’ll be published in the U.S. next month.Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie – Shalimar was a Whitbread finalist in 2005, but generally the book is not thought to be one of Rushdie’s best efforts. The book was nominated by a library in Berlin – excerpt
Alas, the Tournament of Books is over for my bracket as it was revealed that the “Zombie Round” brought Against the Day and Absurdistan back into the competition. With my finalists now officially out of the competition my bracket is dead, and it looks like I’ll finish in the middle of the pack. Meanwhile, fresh off the Oprah selection shocker (more on that in my next post), I’m think The Road is a lock to win this thing.Book Chronicle has organized an award for litblogs. In my post about book blogs being snubbed by the major blog awards, I argued that book blogs didn’t need to recognized in this way to legitimize them. Still, I do appreciate Book Chronicle nominating The Millions for their award.Harry Potter obsessives can now have a look at the cover for the final book in the series.The Paris Review has given its $10,000 Plimpton Prize for Fiction to Benjamin Percy, for his story “Refresh, Refresh,” which is excerpted on magazine’s Web site.Tom Bissell reviews Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close at Wet Asphalt.
I got a lot of responses to my call for people to share the best books they read this year. Here are some of the shorter entries and lists that I received.Stephen Schenkenberg (who pens an engaging blog) said:Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road — the best book I read all year — gutted me. William H. Gass’ essay collection A Temple of Texts — the second best — has been the balm. Steve Clackson also wrote in:My favorite book this year.Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden – commentsSome others I’ve enjoyed.Painkiller by Will Staeger – commentsDe Niro’s Game by Rawi Hage – commentsBooks by Victor O’Reilly – commentsHeather Huggins named her top three:Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer and The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day is a close third.And finally, Sandra Scoppettone’s list: Utterly Monkey by Nick LairdCitizen Vince by Jess WalterThe Night Watch by Sarah WatersThe Girls by Lori LansensWater for Elephants by Sara GruenWinter’s Bone by Daniel WoodrellTriangle by Katherine WeberA Spot of Bother by Mark HaddonEat The Document by Dana SpiottaNo Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthyThanks everyone!
Of all the many literary awards out there, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award is the most egalitarian, international, and exhaustive in scope. This year, 169 libraries in 45 countries nominated 138 novels. All of the books must have been published in English or in translation in 2005. Libraries can nominate up to three books each. Taken as a whole, the literary proclivities of various countries become evident, and a few titles recur again and again, revealing which books have made a global impact on readers. Here are this year’s highlightsOverall favorites: books that were nominated by at least five libraries.Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (one in Canada and five in the US)Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden (all six in Canada)Saturday by Ian McEwan (one each in England, Germany, Greece, New Zealand and Russia)The Accidental by Ali Smith (one each in Belgium, Brazil, England, Ireland and Scotland)The Kreutzer Sonata by Margriet De Moor (all five in The Netherlands)The Sea by John Banville (two in Ireland and one each in the US, Hungary and Czech Republic)You can also look at the list and see which books are favorites in different countries. Aside from Three Day Road in Canada and The Kreutzer Sonata in The Netherlands, several books were nominated by multiple libraries in the same country. Here’s a few:In South Africa, Gem Squash Tokoloshe by Rachel ZadokIn New Zealand, Blindsight by Maurice GeeIn the US, Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala and March by Geraldine BrooksIn Australia, The Secret River by Kate GrenvilleThere were also several countries with only one library nominating just one book. Here are a few of those:From Pakistan, Broken Verses by Kamila ShamsieFrom Malaysia, The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash AwFrom Spain, Cold Skin by Albert Sanchez PinolFrom Suriname, Circle of Love by Soecy GummelsThe shortlist will be announced on April 4, 2007 and the winner on June 14, 2007.
Jonathan Safran Foer posted an excerpt from Extremely Loudand Incredibly Close at Gather.com (one of those social journalism sites), and readers left comments. A few days later he came back and answered some questions about the book. Writes Foer:My parents have a photograph of me on their refrigerator. I’m about six years old, asleep on the sofa, wearing a plaid blazer, a blue sequined bowtie, and rings on each of my ten fingers. Apparently, the look was indicative of my sense of fashion for about a year. That photograph was one of my major sources of inspiration for Oskar.Foer will also be doing a live “Ask the Author” session at Gather on June 23.I’d never heard of Gather.com before I got an email about this from someone there. The site’s a little too frenzied for me — I’m having trouble figuring out what it’s all about — but the Foer thing looks pretty cool.
For me, one of the great feats is to find a book that is so good you can’t put it down. I mean literally – a book that engulfs every spare moment you’ve got, forcing everything else that isn’t necessary to the side. A book that, after reading just the first few chapters, you know is going to be one of the best you’ve ever read.A book this good doesn’t come around very often. To Kill a Mockingbird. East of Eden… Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.Okay. I swear I’ll stop talking about Jonathan Safran Foer. I have to. I’ve read everything he’s written. And I’m glad I saved Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close for the end. So you’ll have to forgive me this month – I guarantee I’ll stop from now on.My first encounter with a Foer was actually with his brother, Franklin, in How Soccer Explains the World. I ran across Jonathan Foer later on, thanks to the Penguin Pockets 70th anniversary set, and then finally read Everything is Illuminated last month. The Penguin Pockets book – The Unabridged Pocketbook of Lightning, was a Vilhauer Book of the Month. Everything is Illuminated would have made it last month, except I chose Other Electricities instead.The reason I chose Other Electricities is because I didn’t want to “over-Foer” my welcome. This month I can’t say the same.Our narrator is nine-year-old Oskar Schell. And his grandmother. And his grandfather. In true Foer style, there are three separate voices embarking on three separate missions – Oskar is looking for a lock. The lock needs to match the key he found on top of his father’s dresser. Oh, and just to add a little timeliness, his father died in the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11th, 2001. Meanwhile, his estranged grandmother and grandfather are writing letters that will never be read.First of all, EL&IC is not a novel about September 11th, 2001. It is, however, a book that feeds off of the misery and fears of that day. Because really, everything that happens has a shadow of the 11th looming above it, a constant reminder of the fact that someone so kind, so unassuming – in this case, Oskar’s father – has died. You can see it in everyone he meets – the sorrow and the sudden protective nature in their actions. No one wants to talk about it, yet here, in the middle of New York City, you’ve got a boy that’s trying to solve a riddle that is nearly directly tied to that fateful day.You can’t expect a young boy to understand fully what happened on September 11th, and Oskar is a great example. He’s a genius, a boy that considers himself a Francophile and gets his news from international news sites. He’s wise beyond his young age, but he’s still a scared boy. He’s picked on at school, and he at times takes on the role of “pretentious little twit,” the smartest guy in the room – a kid that knows too much and isn’t afraid to say it.It’s Foer’s ability to twist relationships – the stranded relationship of Oskar’s grandparents, the strained relationship between Oskar and his mother, the lost relationship of Oskar and his father, the one man that he truly respected and looked up to – that makes the book work. The themes are dreadful, if you think about them too long, but you’re not doing yourself any justice by ignoring them and moving along. All three narratives chronicle disappointment. Sadness. The threat of never being able to say goodbye.But most of all, you find the dead hope of an unanswered question, the “what ifs” that torture each character as they try to go on with their lives. Oskar tries so desperately to be strong in the face of every unanswered question, but he keeps remembering back to that day, to the things he missed and the things he didn’t. What if his father would have lived? To Oskar’s grandmother, it’s a “what if” about her husband, a man who has been gone for years. To Oskar’s grandfather, it’s a series of questions from the 40s that have never been touched.September 11th. The bomb at Hiroshima. The napalm storm of Dresden.A lack of communication. The lost years of childhood. The connections between father and son.How can you spell out the feelings invoked in EL&IC? Because that’s exactly what this book does. It invokes feelings. It brings all of your emotions to your throat. It’s that powerful.What if a book was so intense, so full of questions, so full of the exhilaration that comes from discovering a character’s secret that you couldn’t put it down, and when you finished, all you could do is close the book, stare at the ceiling and think?What if?Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr.